29-30 Agosto “After all this is a war”

August 29-30

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

The next battle is only a day away and the International Brigades are moving from Quinto to Belchite down the Codo Road.  Belchite had been under assault by Spanish troops for several days at this point.  Cecil Eby¹ says there were 18 assaults on Belchite before the Americans arrive at the end of August.  Eby also asserts that Belchite was an unnecessary target as the Republican forces had moved several miles west of Belchite already and had it surrounded.   With a garrison originally of 2500 and at the time of the Battle of Belchite down to 534¹, Belchite still remained a usable outpost for the Fascists and they had promised the garrison that relief was being sent from Zaragoza to rescue the troops there.   The Brigades were not going to leave an outpost which could have numbered thousands of men behind their moving front lines.  Belchite had to be taken.

Luigi Longo

Luigi Longo, Photograph from RGASPI Archives, Moscow Fond 545 Op 6 Delo 129

Colonel Vladimir Copic, General Walter visited Belchite (or as close as they could get since it was still in Fascist control).   They are nearly killed by an aviation attack and apparently one of them came back with a torn shirt.  Merriman is visited at the Estado Mayor by Bob Thompson, Briton Will Paynter and Bill Lawrence from Albacete and Tarazona.  They bring up the payroll money which should be paid to the troops on August 31.   Luigi Gallo, from Madrid, is also in the region, as is Marion Greenspan, also from the Madrid IB Headquarters.   Merriman discusses with the Albacete base visitors about the decisions made about  the Brigade command and Copic is the unanimous choice to lead the Brigade.  Clearly, Copic’s politicking has solidified his support.  It should be noted that it would be unlikely that the Brigades would change leadership during an offensive, unless absolutely necessary.

Merriman is told about new men arriving at Albacete and the status of his previous battalion (the Mac-Paps).  He finds out that Marion Merriman is also ok.   Marion makes a notation in her own memoir:

On August 29 I received a note from Bob, assuring me all was well.  Despite his condense, however, I found little comfort in the assurance; there was also word that the Americans would get no real rest after the fighting at Quinto.  They were to move on to an even harder fight.  In the push to secure the vast Aragon and eventually Saragossa, the Americans were being put to the task of taking Belchite, a city that even Napoleon could not conquer.²

Bill Frame

William Frame, Intendencia, in November 1937. ALBA Photo 11-0118, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman finds that he will get three new trucks from Bill Frame in the Intendencia.  He gets the scuttlebutt on how Rollin Dart and Joe Dallet are doing back in training at Tarazona.

Merriman takes a break with Bob Thompson and goes to the top of Purburell Hill to show him the fortifications.  The visitors probably all went onto Purburell Hill at Quinto to see the fortifications taken during the Quinto offensive.  As the first battle decisively won since Guadalajara, Quinto clearly improved the morale of the Brigades who thought they now had the Fascists on the run.

Codo Groves

The current road from Codo to Belchite, showing the groves lining the road. Source: Google StreetView.

Towards the end of the day, people start loading into trucks and move forward to Codo, which smelled unpleasantly of death.  The Spanish forces of Juan Modesto had gone through Codo in the previous week and bombing of the town was furious.  “R.F.” reported:

Seated on the floor were three men.  Not a scratch on any of them.  A dried up trickle of blood from the nose and ears of one.  All killed by concussion.  Back on the street again, we signaled to the Sanitarios.  

We enter house after house.  These have not been hit by bomb or shell. Yet they are in terrible disorder…. The occupants of these houses, forced to evacuate with the retreating Fascists, had just a few minutes to take any valuables.³

Belchite Aug 29, 1937

Civil War edition of Spanish cartographic map of 1927. The red circle shows the location of the Brigade Headquarters mentioned by Merriman

From Codo, Merriman walked to their new position which was between 2 and 3 kilometers from Belchite on the highway.  This location was in an area of olive groves which would provide significant cover from being seen from Belchite and from aircraft.  Spanish troops had been bivouacked here for nearly a week as they attacked Belchite.  The Lincolns will reinforce them.  The Codo Road comes out north of Belchite on the road that runs to Mediana to the north.  The British Battalion at this point has gone north to Mediana and will hold off the Fascist reinforcements moving down from Zaragoza.  Some men moved south onto that road on the 29-30 evening.   At this point, they would be only a kilometer outside Belchite.

On this road, Merriman says they found the burnt bodies of 32 Moorish soldiers and they buried them.   Transport began catching up with the Brigade movement.   Merriman brought up the Spanish 24th Battalion (and recall that nearly 64 Americans were in the 2nd Company of the 24th and led by Hans Amlie) and tried to attach them to the 11th Brigade.   The concentration of troops was too large and would provide a considerable target for aircraft.   As the night of the 29th ends, the Brigade moves down towards Belchite.   Merriman appears to have difficulty managing the attack since they plan to follow the 24th into Belchite.

Amlie and Copic

Hans Amlie (left) and Vladimir Copic (right), attributed to being at Quinto or Codo, ALBA PHOTO 177-175016, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman clearly is dismissive of Amlie here since movement into Belchite was slow.  He uses the derisive Russian word “старик”  (the cursive Russian looks different than the printed version) which literally translated means “old man”   but is also more derogatorily translated as “graybeard” or “old fogey”.  Amlie’s courage is now under question.   Merriman orders him to move or be removed.  Amlie is under threat of being arrested for not following the orders to attack.   He finally moves the Lincolns but they are repulsed.   Over the next six days, the Lincolns will fight their way into Belchite, street by street and even ditch by ditch.   The machine gun fire from the Church in Belchite is again withering and causes many casualties.   Merriman suggests that many of these casualties were caused by not keeping close contact with the 24th Battalion and making the decision to move into Belchite.   He says “After all this is a war”.

There are dozens of stories on this first attack on Belchite.  Eby places the date as September 1¹, but clearly Merriman has written about Amlie’s weakness in forcing the attack on the August 30 page. The initial attack by 22 Americans was into withering machine gun fire and only 2 Americans survived it.   Over the next week, many assaults would be made on Belchite and Merriman will relate those stories in upcoming diary pages.

Hans Amlie’s notebooks (Hoover Institution, Milly Bennett collection) also place the first movement on Belchite on the morning of September 1.  Merriman is clearly using his diary after the fact and the dates cannot be trusted.  While Merriman accuses Amlie of dallying, Amlie says this (transcription of the free hand by RMH1):

About 2 {probably on the 31st August} Estado put a Span. company in charge of the city.  Quinto.  Moved on to Pina stat.  Af five we again found 24th Batt. waiting for further orders.  Our trucks moved to Codo.  In afternoon went about 2 kms.  Evening aero came over and observed.  Men slept in Belchite about one km.  That nite about 1 am batt. commander sent runner ask for volunteers for special bombing squad.  Our comp. needed an example.  We don’t know what’s up.  Must be like Quinto.  Charlie Regan, former soldier American army got up first – (4 also volunteered but turned down one because he machine gunner).

Garcia, Detro, Thompson, Aguila, and O'Daire

Photograph 177_191110 (reverse of 11_0731): Captain Abad Garcia, Commissars Phil Detro, Bob Thompson, Captains Aguila (Commander of the 24th Battalion) and Paddy O’Daire (Commander of the 57th Battalion), probably late fall 1937, Tamiment Library ALBA collections, NYU Bobst Library, New York.

Batt Commander Aguilar “Have you got volunteers?”

“Yes, four.” Towards Spaniards, “took four American Volunteers” –   Then some of Spanish stepped up.

Bombers never called down & we 1 1/2 kms from Belchite.  — established crude French position on right hand side road.  Avion came up with dawn & dropped bombs all around us.  Several hours later batt. ordered to take another flank.   While in movement enemy machine gun fire.  That morning we had us breakfast!  300-400 meters from walls of Belchite.  Artillery and tanks gave fire.  Was there enough?  What is enough?

Busied ourselves whole day playing lite machine guns.  Putting up observations posts. Studied terrain.  Distributed our section in organized manner.  Noisy day.  Machine gun – felt like a war was going on.  Avion sunup & sundown where shadow on terrain and able to detect our positions.  Haze – from heat.   Obvious that in attacks from across they had free rein.  No … air craft of ours.   At Mediana, we told comrades  high command must have had more serious position.

Our men for 1st time subjected strain fire without sufficient protection.  Enemy machine guns and snipers.

Amlie, of course, never mentions the questioning of his courage or leadership of the men.  In his view, his Company went as far as they could with the support they had.   Logistically, keeping close contact between the front line troops and supplies is impossible and food and water again become an issue for the troops.  Merriman suggests that there is discussion of rebellion.  Merriman sets up a guard for the night of the 30th and works on getting a supply line forward.   John Quigley “Robbie” Robertson, the Lincoln Commissar, is out sick at this point and was unable to coordinate these needs.

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¹ Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid., p 219-220.

² Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid., p. 166.

³ R. F., Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid, p 257.