31 Mayo Looking into the workings of the International Brigades

May 31
Robert Merriman’s diary from May 31, 1937

Robert Merriman has intense days in 1937 where he writes a lot and even (like today) needs a continuation page.  This particular diary entry is illuminating for his frankness about the dynamic of the leadership of the XVth Brigade and the Vth Army Corps to which it belonged.  We might pause to review this, this is the organization of the IB’s (also in Thomas¹) about May of 1937:

Vth Army Corps led by General Gall (Janos Galicz); Hans Claus, Chief of Staff

XI Brigade (“Ernst Thaelmann Brigade”)  led by General Kleber (11/36-11/36), Colonel Hans Kahle¹ (11/36-3/37) and Maj Richard Staimer (4/37-12/37) with Ludwin Renn (Chief of Staff)

XII Brigade (“Lukacs Brigade”)  led by General Pavol Lukacs¹ (Mátá Zalka)

XIII Brigade (“Dombrowski Brigade”) led by General Gómez (Wilhelm Zaisser)¹

XIV Brigade (“The Marseillaise Brigade”) led by Colonel Putz¹ (who went to Bilbao in June) and General Walter (Karol Swierczewski)  after June 15 1937

XV Brigade (XVth Brigada Mixta, “English Speaking Brigade”)  led by Vladimir Copic¹ and formed on February 8:

First regiment (English Speaking) May/June 1937 led by George Nathan

16th (later 58th Battalion; “The British Battalion”) led by Fred Copeman in spring-summer 1937

17th (later 58th Battalion; “The Lincoln Battalion”) Led by Merriman then Marty Hourihan and then Oliver Law (4/37-7/37).  Marty Hourihan was promoted to Regimental Staff.

20th (“The Washington Battalion”, 22 May-14 July 1937)  led by Mirko Markovics.  In May the Washingtons were still in training and after the battle of Brunete, the Washington Battalion was combined with the Lincoln Battalion.

The 60th Battalion – Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion – was not formed until after 29 June.  This was “The Third Battalion” in Merriman’s diary initially led by Robert Merriman, later by E Cecil-Smith)

Second Regiment (non-English speaking)

14th Battalion – The Dimitrov Battalion (largely Slavic) lead by Chapaiev who served as the Second Regiments leader as well.

19th (later 14th Brigade; French Sixth of February battalion)  led by Gabriel Fort

24th (“Voluntario 24″ , later absorbed into the 59th Spanish Battalion”) – This battalion which contained many anarchist units was decimated over the summer of 1937.

International Cavalry Squadron

With this review, we see that Merriman rose on the 31st for work and the new uniform goes into the closet and he switches to his work clothes.  After some infantry and machine gun lectures, Merriman meets with the men and provides criticism.   Merriman spells “Snyder” but this is Murray Schneider.  Schneider is dressed down for participating too much and “Avgherinos”  for participating too little.  Jim Carmody caught the fact this this must be Hercules Avgherinos and not Costas Avgherinos who was dead by this point.  From Carmody:

Hercules later became a member of SIM, and was involved in tracking down Anarchists and others who were helping deserters from the IB’s onto ships and out of Spain. He was later based in Barcelona and was part of the IB Delegation there. He was repatriated from Spain in October,1938.²

Irving Morrison, Steve Daduk and Ed Flaherty are released to Albacete where they will be sent back to the US.  Daduk will return on July 2 and Flaherty on July 31 to the US.  Morrison however will not return until 1938.  On June 1, Merriman will include Sterling Rochester in this group and it is possible he mixed up the names.

General Gal (Janusz Galicz) arrives at lunchtime with David Zaret (real name Daniel Abraham Zaretsky  aka Daniel Zorat aka David A. Jarrett) who was Copic’s Chief of Staff.  Gal’s interest was meeting with his countrymen from Hungary but Merriman wanted to show off his new technology (a mirror to be used when firing a machine gun and keeping your head down).  Gal took a turn at the gun.  Meanwhile Merriman got Zaret to reveal details of a high level party meeting between Gal and the leading American CP cadres Harry Haywood , Bill Lawrence and Bob Minor.   This enclave which lasted most of a day clearly got into the details of who would go where in the new reorganized Brigade.   Recall that Merriman blamed Copic for the disaster of the 27th of February and he expected Copic to be removed.   Zaret lets Merriman know that Allan Johnson had been cleared of the accused “desertion to the front” of April 5 and that more responsibility will be given to Johnson and Copic’s removal is under consideration.  Through the lens of time, Zaret must have been in a tough spot with loyalty to the Americans and working for Copic and hearing that Copic is only being warned to “shape up”.  Copic’s political skills were extensive and his support within the Comintern was not negligible.  Merriman’s activitism to have Copic removed will fail here and fail frequently over the next year.

Gal’s thinking is revealed to Merriman and he will be adjutant for Marcovics in Tarazona for the (still to be named) Washington Battalion.  Given a choice between Marcovics and Merriman he is told they are both from “Mexico”, i.e. the Soviet Union.  This would indicate that Merriman is being given credit for his time in Russia, although according to Marion Merriman Wachtel,  he was studying agricultural economics.  Whether this indicates that he was studying more than agriculture or whether Merriman has claimed that his time in Russia gave him status with the CP is not clear.  Zaret says that the conclusion was that Merriman would go back to a line position either as head of the Lincolns or as head of the new Battalion (the Washington).   Since Oliver Law was in charge of the Lincoln and Marcovics believed that the Washington was his, Merriman will have to bump one of them aside.  He says Gal decides he is to go to Tarazona (i.e. go to the Washington Battalion, with Markovics).

Marcovics must have had his informants out because he races over to Pozorubio on a motorcycle and found out what is going on.   Dave Mates who was the Commissar for the new Washington Battalion was viewed as  “weak” so Merriman suggests to Marcovics that he become Marcovics adjutant in the Washington Battalion.  Marcovics is so thrilled with this idea that he asks to see the orders first.  He told Merriman a flat No!   Merriman must have been totally taken aback.  They later go to see Gal to get the word directly and Gal tells Marcovics that as Adjutant, Merriman would “sit on your left”.   Whether this is to be taken literally or not, it does bring to mind Mark 10:37 where James and John asked Jesus:

They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.

If it was a biblical reference, Gal must have had quite the sense of humor.

In the next sentence, Merriman is encouraged to practice his Russian again and he says he will speak to “gegymka”, written is longhand but in print in Russian дедушка , “dedushka” (thanks to Barry McLoughlin and Alex Zaks for the transcription).  A dedushka is Russian for “Grandfather”.   It sounds as if he will be going to a  senior Russian advisor to speak about “weapons, etc.”  but given the prior discussion and train of thought, one must question whether Merriman is now playing power politics to get that Washington Battalion assignment and to get out of Pozorubio.  He says Gal will visit “them” (presumably the Russians) after dinner on the 1st of June.

The shuffling by Gal encouraged Merriman and Marcovics to go together to see Vidal about the new assignments.  But as we see in the following paragraphs, Merriman did not waste time and went into Albacete on the ruse of intervening with Bill Lawrence who had come back from Jarama.  Minor was already gone so Merriman would be trying to pull strings within the CPUSA and Lawrence.   Lawrence confirms what Zaret had already told Merriman. Lawrence confirms that Johnson’s actions of April 5 are repaired and that Johnson is off the hook.  He may end up as Chief of Staff under Copic and that Copic is depressed by the reorganization talk.   Merriman must have asked if Gal knew what happened on February 27th and finds out that Gal is blind about the controversy of February 27 (should read “does not know, not does get know”).  Lawrence tells Merriman that he has Gal’s support and Gal thinks Merriman “knows how to work like a Bolshevik”.   He says “Johnson not”.  Whether this is a criticism of Johnson being soft, Johnson not being a Communist or just not following orders is not known.  Recall that Johnson reorganized the Lincolns at Jarama without Copic’s approval and some appointments were overturned.

Lawrence revealed that in the 7-hour discussion the possibility of Merriman leading the Washingtons and Marcovics being his adjutant was tossed around.  But the Americans decided on a position which is revealed here.  Merriman can only go to the Lincolns with Haywood, Johnson and Hourihan’s approval.  This shows that if Oliver Law is to be removed those three American CP members would have to take the hit back home for how that would look.  That could hardly happen easily.   The Americans agreed that it would be bad to have Merriman and Marcovics in the same battalion and the bad trust shown between the two men indicate that this is a wise position.   In the formation of the 3rd Battalion, they could bring Rollin Dart back from Cordoba and make him Marcovics adjutant and Merriman could take the 3rd Battalion (the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion).

Merriman goes to Albacete to argue for this line and has time with Vidal.  He finds that this path has already been decided by the Brigade.  Merriman will help Marcovics train the Washingtons until they leave and then he will take over Marcovics’ role with the third battalion.  Merriman will not let the 27th drop and he discusses Copic again with Vidal, who throws Merriman a bone by saying Copic might be moved.

Merriman needed more room to finish his report and entered it on the October 15 and 16th diary page.

15 October Continuation

Robert Merriman’s diary from October 15-16 (continuation page from May 31, 1937)

 Merriman returns to the hotel and meets with comrades in Room 22 (this would be Minor and Lawrence’s room).   He says that they will go to Tarazona and check on Dave Mates to see whether he is ok.  Steve Nelson is tagged to be the Lincoln Commissar at this point and will go to Jarama soon.

Merriman reveals that the men who were assigned to the 86th Brigade (20th Battalion) at Cordoba will be coming back to join the XVth.   This will bring about 100 or so more English speaking comrades into Tarazona, many of whom will be battled hardened and available for leadership.  Gates and Dart are notable inclusions.

George Kaye
George Kaye, arrived from Figueras to Albacete. ALBA PHOTO 11-0656, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that the Captain in charge of training at Figueras came to Albacete to report that some men in Albacete are “demoralized elements”.    It would be interesting to have overheard that discussion.  George Kaye is now in Albacete.  Merriman “bulled” with Joe Dallet in the evening and shared stories about Marion (little did he know the pain she was suffering in Murcia at the time, see the posting of 29-30 Mayo).  Joe Dallet talked about his first (Barbara R. Eisenberg)³ and second (Kitty Puening)  wives.

Merriman gets news that the Ciudad de Barcelona has been torpedoed and that perhaps half of the men on board were Americans for the International Brigades.  Sebastiaan Faber of ALBA wrote an article on the sinking of this ship for the 75th Anniversary in 2012, there is a new website dedicated to the memory of the sinking of the ship,  and some letters and poems from veterans describing their experience are online at the University of Illinois.

After acknowledging that General Gal won a medal from the Spanish Republic, Merriman finishes with the note that Tom Wintringham will soon come to lead the school and we can hear Merriman’s urgency to get out of Pozorubio with “As soon as possible”.


¹ Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, ibid., pg 379.

² Marx memorial Library.IB Archive.Box.21/C/1 & IBA.Box.D-7/A/2.
Moscow.545/6/102.P. 48-55.

³ Ancestry.com (accessed May 25, 2014)

29-30 Mayo Marion Merriman goes on a mission

May 29-30
Robert Merriman’s diary for May 29 and 30, 1937

Merriman’s hand gets denser and denser.  He has a lot to remember from these days.  Merriman repeats the comment made at the meeting on 27 May  “Political commissars are civilians and not soldiers and representatives of the popular front government”.  This message is being beaten into the heads of the Brigade staff and the commissars.  Steve Nelson would become one of these commissars and that is not the message he heard:

The idea of political commissars has been around as far back as the Paris Commune, but when I was assigned to serve as one, I didn’t have a good conception of what that meant.  I asked around and got nebulous answers.  I was told a commissar must be one who is trusted by his men, that he must be able to explain every situation, to see that military decisions and objectives are understood and that the mens’ needs, physical and personal are taken care of.  The fellow who had been the Lincoln’s commissar at Jarama {George Brodsky} had been removed.  He didn’t do anything wrong — he just didn’t measure up to the situation.  I asked if I could meet someone who had served as a commissar and was taken to a hospital to talk to a man who had been the commissar for a French battalion until he was wounded at Jarama.  His head was completely bandaged, leaving only slits for the eyes, mouth, and nostrils.  Through my translator, he to me what the others had said: the commissar must be the most devoted and respected man in the unit.  I had come to Spain with the recommendations of the American Party but I knew that I still had to prove myself to the men with whom I would serve.¹

Many books on Spain leave the impression that the Commissars were completely political, Communist party hacks.  In fact, perhaps a quarter of the men who made Commissar in the Lincoln Brigade were not members of the Party and several were totally apolitical according to their exit papers.  The statement made by Merriman reiterated that the Commissars worked for the Popular Front Government, not for the Army.  This would have put many Commissars in a difficult conflict of interest.

Steve Nelson, Horowitz and Morrison stayed the  night at Pozorubio and Morrison would return to Albacete on the 29th. Lectures were given by Nelson and Merriman, Nelson’s was political education from his commissar’s role and Merriman’s was on tactics versus strategy.

Merriman's hat
Robert Merriman’s new hat (taken from Burt Overton). ALBA Photo 11 – 1278, Tamiment Library, NYU

After the training, Merriman returned to Albacete with Nelson and tried to locate Marion.  Instead he had an interview with Bert Overton and detailed the charges against him.  Overton apparently was never entitled to wear the stripes he wore at Jarama.  Overton must have known he was in serious trouble and was drinking heavily at this point.  Overton would be court martialled and convicted.  This was convenient for Merriman since he needed to trick out his garb and now that he had his new uniform, he needed the hat.   Merriman raised a ruckus (or in his terms, a “scandal”) and got his uniform at 6 pm sharp.  He will be talking about this uniform for days.

The order comes through to arrest Overton and Lamotte says he thinks Overton is in jail for drinking.  Merriman and Lamotte go to the jail and do not find Overton.  In fact, they find an empty jail with all the drunks broken out through a hole in the wall.   Merriman raises hell with the guards.  Likely they were drinking as well as Merriman has found French guards on duty drunk twice in the last few weeks.

Mutiny on the Bounty Video cover.

Merriman says that he ate with “Marcy”.   It is unlikely that he would misspell Marty and he was not fond enough of Marcovics to have a nickname for him.  It is not clear who that soldier is (it could easily be Leo Markowitz, shown on the diary description for May 25-26)  although he was political and Merriman talked with him about the European political situation.   Merriman finds Marion and they go to the movies seeing “The Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) and a Spanish film “El ciento trece”.  The 113 was made in 1935 and released in the US in 1938.

Marion gets news from Arturo Fein that she is to go to Murcia to check out the two British women who are asking questions and are under suspicion.  Arturo Fine shows up in the records of Frederika Martin, a nurse there.  This episode should be told but only in Marion’s own words:

The other incident, which I did not share with Bob, nor with anyone else, was much worse.  …. Bob stayed in town with me that night because I was to be off on the special business the next day.  At eight o’clock in the morning on May 30, I left for Murcia with two pleasant Slav officers.  As we drove through the barren lands, I caught up on my diary, writing entries as we motored along.  We reached Murcia about noon, went on to Orihuela for lunch  then went for a swim, my first in the Mediterranean.  Later I jotted in my diary: “A sandy beach, warm caressing water.  Hold life, hold life so close”.

We had dinner the two officers and I, on a terrace overlooking a sleepy village caught on the arm of a cove.  We marveled at the rosy gray of the sea dotted with slow-moving fishing boats.  And, during dinner, I noted that the atmosphere, the swim, the moonlight, the pure beauty of where we were, seemed to give one of my companions romantic ideas.  In woman-less war, I’d seen the look before.  I dismissed it. 

That evening we checked into the hospital at Socorro Rojo.  Weary from the long, if enjoyable, day.  I fell quickly to sleep.  But, suddenly and sharply, I was wide awake.  The man whose “look” I’d noted at dinner was holding me down, one hand clamped over my mouth.  I fought him, clawing, kicking.  I couldn’t scream.  He raped me.  I kicked him away.  He fled the room.

I was stunned.  I sobbed, terrified.  I climbed from the bed, slowly, and pulled the blankets around me.  I ran down the hall to the bathroom.  There was no warm water.  I filled the bathtub with icy water.  I scrubbed and scrubbed, shivering from the cold and the fright.  Crying, shivering, I scrubbed for hours.  I couldn’t cleanse myself, however hard I tried.  I felt filthy, thoroughly filthy.  I washed and washed, and I cried into the cold, early morning darkness.

The next morning I didn’t know what to do.  What could I do?  Should I try to find a way back to Albacete?  Should I somehow get hold of Bob?  Should I try to reach Ed Bender?  What should I do? I had to calm myself.  This is war, I told myself.  Men are dying and maimed.  This is my burden.  As horrible as the rape was, the worst that could happen would be a pregnancy.  If that happened, I steeled myself, I would go to the hospital’s doctors or to Paris and have an abortion.

But should I tell Bob?  I asked myself, over and over.  I searched and searched for the answer and finally concluded: I must not hurt Bob with this.  If I tell him, I reasoned, Bob might kill the man.  Or one of the other Americans would, for sure.  There would be great trouble.  No this must be my secret burden.  I cannot tell anyone –ever.  What has been done cannot be undone.

I went down to the commissary where the two officers were eating breakfast.  One was, as always, cheerful and friendly.  He seemed confused when I didn’t sit with them.  The rapist was brazen, arrogant.  We continued the mission.  I ignored the rapist, but I could not get the rape off my mind.  But I went on with my work.  I interviewed the Englishwomen.  I memorized impressions and wrote notes.  When we returned to Albacete three days later, I reported to Bob about the Englishwomen’s efforts to distract the Americans.  I said nothing about the rape.  The war filled Bob’s mind.  I could not trouble him further, and I did not.

Nor was I pregnant.²

The man’s name has never been published.

Merriman wanted Marion at the celebration and says “Love in Bloom”  How I wanted you so!   One is left to imagine that this song might have been part of the “stunt” that the officers gave at the Celebration.

Winkler and Becker
Possibly Winkler (left) and Vidal (right) posing in front of a truck. ALBA Photo 177_175028, Tamiment Library, NYU

On the 30th, Merriman woke early and dressed for his “coming out” at Pozorubio and Tarazona in his new uniform and cap.  He showed them off at the 10 o’clock barrack inspection and at 10:30 parade where the Brigade said goodbye to Platone as he would go off to lead the Garabaldi battalion.  It must have been an impressive send off since a Communist Deputy from France came and all the Albacete commissars were mustered up.  Barthel, Winkler, Vidal and Carlos were there.   The photo on the right may be Winkler and Vidal.  Vidal informs Merriman that there will be a reorganization of the XVth Brigade and that he will be moving up.  For now, he will stay with the school until the “end of term” and then move to a command position.    Their entertainment must have gone well.

Merriman says that Steve Nelson, Walter Garland and Marion Greenspan (aka George Marion) came and in the session with “Marcy” or “Morry” they discussed the split between the PSOC and the Anarchists which occurred in the early part of May.  There are several possible Morry’s in the Brigades and this could be one of them.

We will find in the diary entry for May 31 that the Ciudad de Barcelona was sunk off the Catalan coast by a torpedo on May 30, 1937.  More on this in the next exciting installment.


¹  Steve Nelson James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck, An American Radical, University of Pittsburg Press, Pittsburgh, PA., 1981, pp 203-204.

² Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid, pp 147-149.

27-28 Mayo Jockeying for position

May 27-28
Robert Merriman’s Diary for May 27 and May 28, 1937
Markovitz and Johnson
Leo Markovich, unknown soldier, Allan Johnson, and Joseph Brandt, ALBA PHOTO 177-196028, Tamiment Library, NYU. (Previously misidentified as Mirko Marcovics)

We try not to editorialize too much on what is in Bob Merriman’s diary but over the next week there will be much too much material for a comment in passing.  Abbott and Costello did a wonderful sketch of baseball in the US entitled “Who’s on First?” where they talk about the players on Abbott’s baseball team.  This image pops into your head when you read this week’s diary entries.  Allan Johnson said in April that he felt that the Brigade leadership were largely “amateurs” and that only a couple had any real military leadership experience.  The careerism within the General Staff at Albacete is obvious in reading the diaries and a frustration from reading the diary is that you wonder “who is really in charge here?”  We will see Merriman trying on the hat (literally) of a number of potential jobs and jockeying for position in the Brigade structure.  Men are generally competitive, but this game of who is to be on top had a more political role.  While military leadership experience would have been valuable, political stature within the Comintern or their national parties was also a major factor in deciding who would move into any job.  On the diary of May 25-26, he says that a party man could have any job in the Brigades.  And the intonation indicates that Johnson and Merriman feel that the appointees are not qualified to lead.  Many of these men were looking for future roles within the structure of the Communist Party and the adjustments we see over the next week had that flavor.

Marty and Longo
Sketch of Andre Marty and Luigi Longo done for a Commemorative Book for the Spanish Communisty Party, ALBA PHOT 177-197010, Tamiment Library, NYU
Nurse Lillian Urmston and Humberto Galliani (with goatee and pipe) at a football match at Alcorisa in 1938, ALBA Photo 11-1370, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman spends the morning in camp on training and hears lectures from communications experts on how to send signals with flags, on how to operate the new “Mexican” (i.e. Russian) rifles, how to defend against tanks, etc.   Before going out on this field maneuver, Merriman says “Galli” spoke.  We believe this is Humberto Galliani who is in the Brigade leadership at this point and it is possible that this reference was to him.  The lecture was on the role of the commissar and we will hear twice in the next two days that the commissar is a “civilian” and he works for the Government of Spain.   Emphasis is placed that the commissar is there to supervise the military leadership and watch them and that they can “arrest {the} military leader”.  This tips the command leadership on its head since military commanders usually don’t have adjutants who can turn them in.  It is a very Soviet structure of leadership, however.

In the evening, Merriman picks up Marion and they go out to the Auto Park so that Merriman can give a lecture.  He meets with Steve Nelson who has returned from the Cordoba front and meeting with Americans there.  He mentions Robert Traill, a British officer who is Chief of Staff, and John Gates who is the Commissar.   Mirandez  (actually Colonel Morandi) was the commander of the 86th Brigade.  We discussed this front earlier.

On the 27th, Merriman meets with “Fein” and talks about Murcia.  There were other Fein’s in the brigade (Richard and Michael) but they would not have fit this description.  Arturo Fein was the “Chef du Service de Controle”, effectively what would become the Servicio Intelligence Militar or SIM later.¹   In reading this Delo in RGASPI, Murcia was in turmoil at this point.  Several doctors, including Telge, Blanck, Catalette, and Cazin have memoranda recorded where they accuse each other and the Brigades, for the poor morale and impossible conditions in Murcia.  We have seen that there was a fight between Dr. Gorgan and Vidal over the ambulance service.  This comes up in these memos, but the larger issue revolves around the competence of certain doctors such as Catalette, who had been in Murcia very early.  Catalette was so irritated, he resigned his position and Cazin, in Paris, requested that an Autochir be freed up to drive him out of Spain.  That would have been an extraordinary demand to make of the Murcia leadership.   Accusations abound on the 5th Column in Murcia and drink is felt to be a tool by which the Fascist sympathizers sowed discontent amongst the Brigade.  One should remember for this period that reorganizations were occurring everywhere with the new Government providing opportunity for those who wanted to move up.   To do so, often accusations appear to be made which impugn the reliability or political strengths of some of the early volunteers.

This passage leads to a major event in the life of Marion Merriman.   We see on the 28th that Fein meets with Merriman again and that there is a discussion about Bert Overton and two British women at Murcia who were asking questions about movements at the front.  Suspicion arises that these women were sent in by MI-5 to spy on the Brigades and Marion Merriman will be tapped by Albacete to go check them out.  Fein will choose Marion Merriman for this role.   Mrs. Merriman relates:

Rumors reached Albacete that two Englishwomen were in Murcia creating trouble among the American volunteers.  Bob was approached by brigade officials with word that the women were visiting the hospitals and encouraging the Americans to  quit the Spanish Republican effort, telling them they were not getting a fair deal.  Because the matter involved women, there was a feeling I should go to Murcia to learn what I could about them.  So Bob assigned me, along with two officers, to the mission.²

Burt Overton has been in trouble since April and we mentioned these passages in that posting.  Overton’s trial will be over by May 30 and he will be spoken of twice here over a few days.

1st Lieutenant
Brodsky’s likely stripes when in the Intendencia. First Lieutenant
Commissar Stripes
Brodsky’s previous “stripes” as Battalion Commissar

Merriman is back in Albacete on the morning of the 28th because he marches up to the hospital to check on his new uniform.  “Clothes Make the Man” will be Merriman’s watchwords this week and his diary reflects his obsession about looking like a Commander.  George Brodsky is now in the Intendencia and very unhappy with the assignment.  He makes a sarcastic comment that he is now wearing stripes³ (before he was a commissar and would have had a single red star and stripe on his cap).  Now he will be a Lieutenant with a bars.  Brodsky says he will put it on crooked so that people will think it doesn’t matter to him.

Cook Gravemarker
Gravemarker for Sgt. Gerald Cook, Lincoln Battalion, Arlington National Cemetery
Gravemarker for Bob Thompson (same man as in this passage of the diary), Arlington National Cemetery
Gravemarker for Louis Gordon, Lincoln Battalion, Arlington National Cemetery
Gravemarker for Burt Jackson, Lincoln Battalion, Arlington National Cemetery

Merriman rides out to camp Pozorubio with Steve Nelson, Bob Thompson and the Russian “Carlos”.   Merriman says “Holiday will be on Sunday”.  Sunday, May 30 was the traditional Memorial Day Holiday for Americans and they continued to observe it in Spain, possibly as reflection and honor for Americans who fought in the First World War.  This remembrance of the fallen occurs in May for Americans (November 11 for the British and Canadians, while Americans celebrate their living veterans on November 11).  As a remembrance here, four Lincoln Veterans were honored May 25, 2014, at Arlington National Cemetery with roses on their graves.  Those photos are shown here.

Merriman finishes the evening in meets with Mirko Marcovics about the alignment of the Battalions and they will be competing for positions over the next few days.  Merriman drops the number “27th” into the text and that is a reference to February 27 where Merriman holds Copic responsible for the losses for the Lincolns at Jarama.  He will never forget the order to go over the top even though the military position at the front was not what Copic described.  And Merriman believes that Copic should not be trusted to lead.  He probably was trying to align Markovics, an American Yugoslav, up with the American positions, hoping that it would not just be an American-European battle for the leadership.  At this point, Merriman still holds out hope that Copic will be removed.

Merriman meets with Steve Nelson, Morrison (probably Irving Morrison) and Horowitz (this could be either William Horowitz, a.k.a. Bill Herrick a.k.a. William Harvey or Sidney Horowitz).  Horowitz is probably not Bill Herrick since Herrick would have likely described this in his books later in life.   The meeting is to practice their “stunt” which its likely to be a skit that the officers would give to entertain the troops at the holiday meal.


¹ RGASPI, Fond 545/Opis 3/Delo 725, pg 22.

² Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid., pg 147.


25-26 Mayo A Decision is made to name the Washington Battalion

May 25-26
Robert Merriman’s diary from May 25 and 26, 1937

Merriman is enough of a gentleman that he doesn’t name names when it comes to his friends.   From the post of the 24th, we know Bob Thompson and Joe Dallet picked up a nurse in Albacete and now we know they spent the night with her.  We find that she is trying to “replace women {in} battalion”.

The American Medical Bureau Team
From the Fredericka Martin Collection: (l-r) Fredericka Martin (head nurse), Dr. Eduardo Odio Perez, Dr. Alan Sorrell, Dr. Eddie Barsky (Chief Doctor), Mildred Rackley (interpreter, chief clerk), Anne Taft (R.N.), PHOTO 1:1:32:2, Tamiment Library, NYU

We have some possible suspects for this camarada.        Mildred Rackley was in charge of the recruiting of nurses and was in Spain about this time.  There was a sailing of a large number of nurses and doctors from the American Medical Bureau on the SS Normandie on May 19.  All evidence about Rackley being in Albacete is speculative.  Merriman (and presumably Marion as well since Bob stayed over with Marion) met the other three for breakfast and had a merry time.

Merriman goes to Room 22 in the hotel.  Room 22 clearly is one of the bigger suites.  Room 22 will be mentioned whenever Merriman goes to meet Party officials.  The meeting took some time and Robert Minor insists on a “milder” name for the second battalion than the “Tom Mooney Battalion”.   Tom Mooney was in San Quentin prison at this time and clearly “Washington or Jefferson” had less political baggage.  Minor wins out and the second Battalion becomes the “George Washington Battalion”.  Three out of the four Presidents on the monument being carved at this time in Keystone, South Dakota, were mentioned as names for Battalions.

After the meeting Minor and Harry Haywood depart for Jarama to visit the Lincoln Battalion on the lines.  Merriman says that Steve Nelson departs for Cordoba, probably to meet with the 60 or so “lost Lincolns” who are in the 20th Brigade at that point on the Cordoba front.  Those Lincolns will return to the XVth Brigade by July and clearly the intent is to put English speaking brigadistas in the XVth Brigade.

Merriman finds out the result of his X-ray of the 23rd and it is not good.  In addition to bone seepage, he still has a broken elbow which will need an operation to fix.   There is no evidence that Merriman actually had that operation and this note says that Merriman cannot straighten his arm.   In the photographs of Merriman for the next year, however, he is shown with his arm straight in some photographs so either he overcame the injury by exercise or the diagnosis here is wrong.   Knowing that Merriman has had a broken shoulder and a broken elbow may be of future use to forensic archeologists who may at some time come across Merriman’s remains in digs near Gandesa and Corbera in Spain.

Merriman goes to the Garde Nacionale and meets again with Pierre Lamotte, whose time in the Brigade obviously is shortening.  He says Lamotte was again fighting with people in the Intendencia and Merriman recognizes that his friend will have to leave this job.  Lamotte will shortly be arrested, charged with theft  and imprisoned for the length of the war.  He returned to the US in February 1939 under a questionable cloud.  Merriman says that “Stanley deserted”.  There is an Al Stanley in the Lincolns at this time but he went by the name Al Handler in Spain.  He was assigned to the Washington Battalion but there is nothing in his record on RGASPI that says he “deserted”.

The next sentence does not seem to follow and the closest parsing reads “Decision Maddry”, which could be Madrigueras. There was a decision needed on who would come from Madrigueras to Tarazona.  In another frenzied memo, Vidal chastises the Autopark for not providing enough transport to move 125 men from Madrigueras to Tarazona.  In any case, it is followed by some reference to party members being given jobs in “any place here”.

Merriman goes to check out the Ammo storage building that was sabotaged and finds it leveled.  His intent was to replace the guard on the building and realizes that there is nothing left to guard.  He pulls the guard off the wrecked building.  He returns to Pozorubio or Tarazona and says that he left Allan Knight in Albacete.

In a moment of “too much information”, Merriman must have been amused by Joe Dallet conducting his own “third arm inspection” (‘third arm’ or ‘short arm’  being military slang for an appendage which cannot be used to fire a gun) and washing his privates in the room.  At the time, Richard Baxell informs us of sanitary habits quoting from a letter from Australian Laurence Collier to Bill Alexander that resides in the International Brigades Archives at the Marx Memorial Library:

At this period of my life, I was 23, I was not very good at either love or sex, or shall we say love and sex.   There were a half a dozen young women I meant in the course of my service who attracted me, Angela H[aden] G[uest], Patience Darton, and a few Spanish ‘nurses’, etc.  I never got as far as to make a romantic suggestion, they all seemed out of reach (I was immature, or something).   When in Barcelona I visited a sort of red light district, and was rather appalled a a professional exhibiting herself outside a sort of booth which I suppose was a crude brothel.

I found a not unattractive ‘sensible looking’ woman of about 35 and suggested spending the night with her.  She said she was otherwise engaged but took me to a room where we had what can only be described as ‘surgical sex’, after which in a very business-like way she completed the ‘surgery’ by washing my parts with a solution of permanganate of potash.¹

The potassium permanganate or “Condy’s Crystals”  would have been a disinfectant.   While some men in the Brigades actually caught venereal diseases, there was enough knowledge at the time to reduce the potential for catching VD.

On the 26th of May, Merriman holds meetings with Ed O’Flaherty who went by the name Flaherty in Spain and Steve Daduk.  He meets with the camp commander and says he is “weak”.   A few days previously, Merriman was taken with the man who we now know is Tadeusz Oppman, a Polish lawyer who was the head of the Dombroski Battalion in the fall of 1936.   Merriman says that “Otero, a representative of Gallo” was inspecting the camp.   There is a memorandum sending Comrade Otero to the Albacete in the orders of the Command².

Merriman says that they had their first flag raising ceremony in camp with the Russians “Carlos” and “Roblet” there.  The flag went up upside down which must have been embarrassing.  During training Roblet read modifications to the Soviet military manual which had to do with tanks.  We are only left to guess what change was included other than, sarcastically, British driving tanks should drive on the right side of the road and not run over donkey carts.

Finally, Merriman finishes with Dr. Madan Mohan Lal Atal just saying that he is still suspicious of him.  Atal must be in Pozorubio and since this camp was top secret with open discussion of most political issues, Merriman was suspicious of Atal’s background.   As we said in previous postings, it is unlikely that Dr. Atal was a Communist Party member at this time.  We will hear no more of Dr. Atal in the diary.


¹ Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors, ibid. pg 251 and reference 55, therein.

²  RGASPI Fond 545/Opis 1/Delo 45/Pg 18  (May 14, 1937).

23-24 Mayo Merriman has lots to tell his diary (X-Rated Edition)

May 23-24
Robert Merriman’s diary for May 23 and 24, 1937

Merriman has time on the 23rd and 24th to write plenty about the machinations of the Brigade.  He even includes a page of notes from later in the diary.

The day starts routinely with Merriman going from Pozorubio (“Camp”) to Albacete to view instruction on the two new anti-tank guns from Russia.  He receives a lecture and something which looks like “lock” but whatever it is it took all morning.   Dr. Atal continues to be a concern to Merriman.  Atal was not a member of the Communist Party (he was a member of Nehru’s Congress Party in India later in life).  It is quite possible that Atal has raised concern by his comments made in early May and he is now on Merriman’s suspicion list.  He did, however, apparently pass his examination by the Doctor brought to camp to check him out and it looks to be a political concern with Atal at this point.  Merriman says Atal is being exposed to open political discussions and  has “No discipline”.

After he and Bob Thompson had a check up at the doctor’s office, they ate and attended their first bullfight in the ring at Albacete.  Marion Merriman relates:

In the afternoon, the two Bobs [Merriman and Thompson], Joe Dallet [the Ivy-League-educated commissar], and I went to our first bullfight.  Through a friend we had seats in the circle of boxes high around the rim of the ring.  The place was packed, at least the shady side for even at four o’clock in the afternoon the sun blazed.  Music, a gay introduction to a dead romance.  The bull racing bewilderingly into the arena.  The cape holders (they do have a name for them but I can’t think of it) waving their cerise and yellow cloaks.  The bull rushing back and forth, not too excitedly and occasionally stopping to stare at the crowd.  The bandilleros, riskier business than any, waiting for the proper moment to throw the brightly colored darts into the bull.  The bull enraged trying to shake the darts out his back. Blood running in trickles down his sides.  More play from the cape wavers.  The fanfare.  The torero with his crimson cloak and sword.  Graceful taunting and tormenting of the bleeding bull.  The quick thrust sword to the hilt draws applause.  The bull weaves, lunges in a last frenzy, sinks to the ground in a slather of fury and weakness.  The man with the dagger at a safe moment plunging it into the bull’s brain.  The bull dragged ignominiously off on a chain by a team of horses.  And the next bull is prodded and dodged through the same routine.¹

Merriman says he did not enjoy the bullfight and most Americans were disgusted.

More of Lamotte’s battles with the Albacete leadership come out and Lamotte appears to be defending Americans being in the artillery unit.  Vidal’s memo (see the previous posting) also concerns the Artillery and there was discussion of taking all the artillery pieces away and giving them to the Spanish Army.  Vidal had line authority over the Artillery units and would have been quite possessive.  The dispute goes deeper apparently as we see on the 25th.  In one of the more strange sentences in the diary, Merriman says that the “husband of the man” who ran the Intendencia arrived and there was “shock”.  We may never know this whole story but it does sound like an interesting one.  At this point, Lamotte ran the Intendencia so one might surmise that his sexual orientation became an issue at this point.   Lamotte is having a wide range of charges being stacked up against him.  In one memo, Lamotte is accused of being abusive to the guard at the Garde Nationale barracks, taking his gun away from him and then the Americans who wrote the complaint felt that this was a way of setting the guard up for charges for not having his gun.

Merriman says that the guys he was with stayed in Room 35 at the hotel and we would need a hotel register to figure out who was staying in that room.  We will find where they slept on the 24th to 25th.   Merriman has enough to tell his diary that he used another notes page from the end of November:

November notes page
Additional notes page attached to May 24, 1937, from Merriman’s diary
177-196102 Aitken
Bert Williams (left), George Aitken (center) and Marty Hourihan (right), ALBA Photo 177-196012, Tamiment Library, NYU

The intense rivalries in the leadership of the Brigades are revealed here in their depressing detail.  Merriman says that George Aitken and Vladimir Copic made up a faction of the leadership who were opposed by Merriman/Haywood/Lawrence/Johnson (most of the Americans).  Merriman makes the critical comment that General Gall {sic, General Gal or Janós Galicz} was acting as a political commissar and General.  This is a conflict of interest since the “ombudsman” qualities of a commissar were designed to be a relief valve when conflicts with military line management developed.  Clearly, the Brigade leadership did not have a Brigade Commissar to provide that adjudication of the infighting. It is believed that the Brigade Commissar at this time was Jean Barthel.

The issue appears to be the unwillingness of Copic to ask for relief troops to take the IB’s off the line at Jarama until the Brigades were reorganized.  The Americans appear to be resisting bringing up the new Battalion until these issues are resolved.  Allan Johnson got in trouble for his actions on April 5 when he left the training base and went to lead at Jarama after a fascist attack on April 4.  Harry Haywood sent Johnson back to Albacete since Johnson will have “deserted to the front” if Copic had not ordered him to the front.   This event is not a major part of the story of Jarama but it was telling:

The loss of two hundred meters of trench on the 14th of March was rectified on April 5, when elements of the Dombrowski and Garibaldi battalions drove forward briefly on the Lincoln’s left to recapture these positions.  Captains Johnson and Hourihan directed the action, the Lincoln Battalion’s job begin specifically to supply cover fire while the other battalions went over; then the Americans themselves  left their entrenchments under British cover fire.  When the attack was launched, there was some hope of pushing on beyond the first objective– to straighten the line– but again it was launched too late in the day , and some units failed to appear at all for their role in the operation.  Captain Allan Johnson says that the Lincolns had not been slated to go over; that the plan had been for the 11th Thaelmann Brigade to attack through the Lincoln line in conjunction with the assault of the Garibaldis and Dombrowskis.  They were to have appeared on the scene at approximately 7:00 A.M.  Since they did not arrive at that hour, and since four hours later the Rebels were thoroughly alert to the developing attack all along the line– artillery and mortar shells were now ranging the Brigade parapets– he ordered the Lincoln’s First Company to go over, to threaten the enemy positions, and to prevent any possible counteraction prior to the arrival of the 11th.

Contrary to previous reports of this action, the Republican casualties were by no means light.  The Garabaldis, especially were hit hard.  Charles Nusser of the Lincolns states that some of the Garibaldis, either going over or returning to their lines, found themselves in front of the Lincoln trenches, got caught up in the Lincoln barbed wire, and were badly shot up.  Heavy fire met the assault of the Lincoln’s First Company, but relatively few were killed.  The entire Battalion actually sustained only twenty casualties for its part in the action of April 5.  Amongst those wounded, however, were Captain Johnson, Captain Hourihan, David Jones, the Battalion Commissar and a number of the leading cadres.²

Oliver Law
Oliver Law

Knowing this counterattack was occurring on the 5th, Johnson left Albacete and took action. Aitken and Copic did not support Johnson in this action.  Merriman states that as a result Copic jumped in and tried to reduce the Battalion staff by promoting Oliver Law up to Battalion Commander (in Marty Hourihan’s absence as he was sick).    Merriman’s attribution of the changes may be clarified by Art Landis who says that it was Allan Johnson who made the promotions of Walter Kolowski to the MG Company, Paul Burns to command Company 1 and Edward Flaherty to the command of 2nd Company. ²  Merriman, however, here says that a Slav was promoted Commander of the Machine Gun Company and Kolowski was demoted again by April 23.   This is probably the event where Johnson must have had his moves overruled and resented it.  “Words developed”.  If Johnson went at Copic, he clearly did not win the contest of wills.

The tempest developed into a political storm because when Robert Minor and James Ford visited lines at Jarama, Johnson was ignored and this aggravated the grievances.   Copic apparently charmed Ford and this further irritated the Americans when the VP Candidate of the Communist Party of America took the side of a Yugoslav commander of the Brigades over the wishes of the American communist leaders of the Brigades.  Continuing his list of grievances, Merriman pours out the fact that the Spanish are unhappy since they are also not getting the leave from the lines that they were accustomed to in the Spanish Army.   Merriman says that the front line troops are demoralized and the “Lincoln Battalion” had only 80 men remain in the lines … far fewer than the 600-800 that would be at strength.

As a side note here, Oliver Law would become a singular icon in the Lincoln Brigade as the first black officer in any war who rose to command a Battalion of mixed American soldiers.  Law was both used as a heroic icon back in the US to hold up the Brigades as fully integrated as well as dashed after the war by a number of writers who sought to denigrate Law’s competence.   We will not delve into this controversy since it is peripheral to Merriman’s diary and not discussed at all in Marion Merriman’s memoir about Robert.   It should be noted that these events on April 5 were central to Law’s rise in the ranks.   Anthony Sparrowhawk of England has a biography of Oliver Law in the works and we hope to see it published in the next year or so (private communication).

Merriman describes the reorganization of the Brigade around language. He says that Vidal, Platone and Dr. Telge have gone to Valencia to plead their case with the new Minister of War, Indalecio Prieto.  They wanted four “units” (for the lack of a better word in the transcription): one Slav, one German, one French and one English.  Each Brigade would have five battalions making 20 overall battalions in the Brigades.  The plan included three active Battalions at any one time with one in reserve and one completely at rest.  The plan doesn’t say how often the rotations would occur.  The group asked for pensions to be paid to veterans after the war and discretion to remove some soldiers totally out of the Brigades and back to their home countries.

Merriman continues that this would mean a reorganization along language lines.  The XVth Brigade would be entirely English speaking.  Vidal continued his presentation that reorganization needed to include Albacete, the Base.  It was said that Albacete was not safe (obviously so since saboteurs had destroyed the Brigade ammunition depot in recent days).  In the interview, which was planned for the morning of the 24th of May, Vidal invited Prieto to visit the Brigade lines, a visit which apparently never occurred.  In addition, a proposal was made to have “all language units”, presumably mixing everybody up.  This sounds like the “poison pill option” which you offer in a negotiation and one which you know will be rejected as unworkable.

Going back to the May 24 entry in the Diary, Merriman tells us he got up and took Joe Dallet with him for an 8 o’clock military parade at the Garde Nacionale but that since the guard had been doubled on the ammunition dump, no one could fall in on parade.   Merriman and Dallet returned to their quarters so they could do their ablutions, including taking a bath.  He picked up Marion and they went for breakfast and then he was off to inspect the guard at the Garde Nacionale.  Clearly, the nerves were on edge about sabotage.

Merriman is still dealing with his broken wing and he gets another X-ray.  We will hear the outcome on the 25th.  Merriman says he joined “boys who are on the chase” which is clearly code for being out on the town to find women.  He goes to the Auto Park and hears Bob Minor speaking and they have entertainment.  In their travels, they get shot at and there were obviously fifth columnists (perhaps resentful anarchists or POUM, who would have been angry about the events in Barcelona earlier in the month) amongst the locals near Albacete.  On the 21st of May, Hourihan’s orders of the day state that Johnson was removed on orders of the Brigade.

Merriman gets to the Ammo factory that was blown up and finds it substantially gone.  The French guard at the site had been drunk.  Merriman has to hunt down his officer to complain.

Merriman reveals that Bob Thompson “got lucky” with one of the nurses and Thompson and Dallet spent the night with her.


¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid.,  p 146.

² Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., pp 161-162.