29-30 Julio “Tough Luck, George”

July 29-30,1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for July 29 and July 30, 1937

William Frame

William Frame at the Brigade Intendencia, December 1937, ALBA Photo 11-0683

In a very busy two days in the diary, Merriman lets us know that Lucien Vidal who has been leading the Albacete base since December 1936 has been removed.   Clear from the diary is that the removal was not welcome and that Vidal held hard feelings.  His comment when Merriman said he would see him in Paris, “I hope I shall return to Spain”.   The party for Vidal gave him short approbation and shorter applause.  Vidal would be replaced by Comrade Bielov, a Russian who would lead the base into 1938.   William Frame and Dave Doran were working behind the scenes in this turn-over.  Frame was the head of the Intendencia at this point and gave a talk about how the Guard Nacionale (the Intendencia) was the best in Spain at this point.   Frame apparently stepped in it by giving a compliment to Vidal.  While Vidal’s memoir does not discuss his removal (except in a very academic debrief of his experience in Spain at the end of the memoir) it apparently had to do with mismanagement of funds and the Intendencia itself so there is a subtext running through Merriman’s notations here.

Merriman says that Ed Bender had a case of nerves when he returned from the front at Brunete.  On the 29th, things were not going well for the Lincolns and as they retreated, some men were killed.  George Nathan, the Regimental Commander of the Brigades was killed 17 kilometers behind the lines from a bomb fragment.  Steve Nelson recalled it:

Ahead, under the trees, we saw smoke rising from the camouflaged kitchen, saw the crews of the anti-aircraft guns moving about.  The lovely smell of burro stew floated through the still air.  Major Nathan, in charge of the withdrawal, strolled across the field. “Steve, old chap!  Welcome home.  Come along, you old Yank, have a bit of a snifter.  I’ve been saving this for you.  An Englishman’s drink.

He raise a tin cup solemnly, cocked an eyebrow at me, “To our new Brigade Commissar. Mud in your eye, sir!”

“You mean — me?”

“Certainly. You will have official notice shortly, but I assure you — I say!”

The drone of motors.  We craned our necks, peering at the sky.  “There they are — coming over the mountains.  Oh, the bloody — Best hit for cover, eh?  Over that wall — a ditch”

We ran like deer.  The anti-aircraft let loose, all five guns at once, but the planes were flying very low.  The thud of bombs came from beyond the grove, and instantly the planes were overhead.  Nathan yelled, “Drop!” and I burrowed into the dirt.  My holster was under me.  If I could get the holster out, my behind would come down a few miles.  I tugged at the holster, and an enormous crash deafened and blinded me.  The bomb had burst right beside me seemingly.  But I was all in one piece.

Nathan was calling “I’m hit Steve!”  I ran to Nathan ripped open his shirt.  There was a three inch gash in his breast , with only a speck of blood oozing out;  I thought at first it was just a scratch, but Nathan’s face twisted with pain.  It must be bad.  I yelled frantically for first aid, and a couple of men came running.  Nathan couldn’t speak.  He was clawing at his Sam Browne belt; he dragged it off, and handed it to me, and his gesture said “Take it — I’m through”.¹

Although Walter Garland would commandeer an ambulance to rush Nathan to the hospital, he died that evening.  Garland would be reprimanded for stealing the ambulance.  Nelson felt that he had ironed out the theft of the ambulance, but from Merriman’s diary we see that this counted against Garland.

Merriman’s comment: “Tough luck, Geo.”

Merriman met John Miller in Albacete.  Miller is likely John Miller of Windsor, Canada, who was a Communist organizer since 1933.²  Merriman also says that Winkler will leave as will Schalbroeck.   This is quite a turnover at Albacete since Winkler was the personnel officer of the International Brigades.   Merriman says that there will be a new political commissar at the Base as soon as he hikes in from France.

Arnold Reid

Arnold Reid, RGASPI Photo Fond 545/Opus 6/ Delo 970

On the 30th, the political leaders of the American brigades, John Miller, Ed Bender, Harry Haywood, Bill Lawrence, and Jack Reid arrived to discuss a new International Brigade policy on repatriation.  Jack Reid was Arnold Reid (a.k.a. Arnold Reisky), an American who worked in the Paris Office of the brigades and helped channel Americans to Spain.²  The Comintern (CI) worried that leading communist cadres were being killed in increasing numbers and they were reserving the right for themselves to identify Brigadistas for repatriation to their countries.

Niilo Makela

Niilo Makela, as Commissar of the Mac-Paps, 1938. ALBA Photo 11-1281, Tamiment Library, NYU

In the midst of the discussion, a maneuver between Companies 2 and 3 of the Mac-Paps took place at night.  This competition involved Bill Skinner, Bill Lawrence, and Niilo Makela of Canada, against Merriman, Joe Dallet, and John Miller.   Merriman says euphemistically “they never laid a hand on me” (while the objective was to take prisoners).

At the end of the diary pages, Merriman notes that Mirko Marcovics was removed from command of the Washington Battalion for not following orders.   At this point in the battle of Brunete, the Lincolns and Washingtons were so decimated that there really only was one Battalion left and probably only the need for one Commander.  Peter Carroll tells the story:

At one point, the new officers of the Lincoln-Washington battalion — Markovicz, Nelson and Garland (before he was wounded) — were ordered to a meeting with brigade Colonel Klaus, a Prussian officer who had replaced the wounded Copic.  Bringing out a contour map, he directed the Americans to move their men to an exposed position in order to protect a company of Spanish marines.  “A deep silence fell on the group as the Colonels’ words were translated”, remembered Nelson;  ‘we all seemed to get the gist of the urgency of his words before they were translated.” Markovicz, speaking to Nelson in their native Serbo-Croatian, said “This can’t be done.  I am against it.”  Klaus, sensing the response, eyed Marcovicz and responded, “That’s an order”.

Still speaking in their own language, Nelson asked Marcovicz how they could disobey the colonel.  “If you accept this order,” said the experienced Markovicz, “I will hold you responsible before the Americans back home for whatever happens.”  Unable to understand this conversation, Klaus demanded that they speak in English, with which his translator was familiar.  “We have no time to waste,” he said, demanding that Marcovicz gave him a clear answer.

“Commander Klaus,” the Yugoslav replied, “this is a disastrous order. I will not order the American battalion to carry out this order because it will result in a disaster, like the one at Jarama”.  As he spoke, Marcovicz kept his eye on Nelson, looking for support.  “He should have known,” the commissar {Nelson} later reported, “that I had no choice … we could not disobey an order”.

“Marcovicz, I gave you an order which I received from division,” Klaus declared.  “You and I are under military orders.  This is not a debating discussion here.  We must act, especially since we are International Brigades, whose role is to develop discipline”.

“Then,” Nelson reported, “Klaus stood up and with unmistakable military bearing said “I order you to carry out the order”.  Markovicz also stood up and said “Colonel Klaus, I cannot carry out this order.”

“Then Klaus stepped closer to Markovicz and extended his hand and said, ‘Marcovicz, I order you to surrender your weapon'”

“Marcovicz reached for his pistol and with an expression of obedience and surrender he handed the gun to Klaus.”  Taking the pistol, the Colonel turned and passed it to Nelson, along with the responsibility for carrying out the order.³

Nelson returned to the men and told them they had to go back into the fire.  The men could not believe that they would be sent back to certain death.  Nelson told them that they had to do it or they would be fighting the fascists where they were on the next day.  The Americans mustered to march, but did not have to have to take the lines as other Spanish reinforcements were brought up and the Americans were allowed to retire from the Battle of Brunete.  In this exchange, Nelson’s standing rose dramatically and Marcovics’ fell.

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¹ Steve Nelson, The Volunteers, Masses and Mainstream, New York, 1953, pp 166-168.

² Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid., p 145.

³ Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., p143-144.