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.

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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.