31 Agosto “A really tough day”

August 31, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for August 31, 1937

Given that Belchite would be one of the toughest assignments that the XVth Brigade would face in 1937, Merriman did not write much over the next two days.  This indicates that he was very busy without much down time to put down his notes.   Merriman carries over his sentence from August 30, saying that the “next day” orders came to attack but did not do it.  So while the Americans were in position to assault Belchite, all that happened were small probes by some units, artillery assaults, tank approaches, and some “partisan tactics” employed by Chapayev and the Dimitrov Battalion.   Merriman may be reflecting the wishes of the Army Corps command that the action proceed with haste, but Belchite was a densely occupied town with only a few routes of access in.  The town was interweaved with above ground and below ground passageways within the houses.  An attack on a house would just have the defenders move to the next house down the street.

From the northern side of the town where the Americans were lined up, a road leading from between brick building (a “barn”) and a factory channelled into a square in front of the San Agustin Church.   Fascists had machine guns in each of the churches in town and it was nearly impossible to get into Belchite.

Belchite Map

A map of Belchite from a Polish edition of “El General Walter. Sirvio a tres Banderas: Republica Espanola, Polonia y la URSS. 35 división” by Fernando Martinez de Banos Carrillo and Agnieszka Szafran. editors.  Delsan Libros, 2011. DP is Divisional Estado Mayor, BM is Mixed Brigade and BP is battalion for their relevant positions.

In the above map of Belchite (thanks to Alan Warren for the source), the 58th Battalion is the position of the Lincolns, the 59th is the Spanish Battalion and the 60th is the Mac-Pap Battalion in the XVth Brigade.  The 57th is the British position up the Mediana Road protecting from reinforcements for the Fascists.   Getting an airborne image of the current Belchite is difficult as Google Maps is intentionally blurred.  Fortunately, Michelin provides maps and air photos of the current destroyed Belchite.   Much of the initial action of which Merriman speaks are in the small area below:

Belchite

Air Photo of the current Belchite. The historical town of Belchite is in the destroyed area at the bottom right of the image. The Church is San Agustin where the initial XVth Brigade battles occurred (photo courtesy Michelin Maps)

Merriman does not really know whether the Dimitrov Battalion has taken the Church (they had not).  When Merriman says “Occupied building across road” it is believed that he is referring to the Fabrica opposite the church, which could not be held because grenades kept getting lobbed into this building from the stronghold across the street.   Some Americans made it into Belchite early, including John Cookson, who set up transmissions from inside the city until Robbie Robinson ordered him out since he “was surrounded”.¹

Belchite Fabrica

Current day view of the Fabrica (yellow building) and San Agustin Church, Belchite (author’s photo)

 

Approach to Belchite

The road leading to the Fabrica with San Agustin on the left. Taken in 1937. ALBA PHOTO 11_1229, Tamiment Library, NYU

Dave Engels described some of the fighting around San Agustin and uses the term “barn” others have called these buildings a “mill” or a “Fabrica”.    Engels says that when the Americans tried to go into the alley between what is labelled “Fabrica” and “Barn” above, Fascists came pouring at them from the buildings behind the church.  The thick walls protected the Fascists from grenades, even though they were only a few meters from the alley.²

Again, the timeline on the attack on Belchite is clouded here.  Most historians place the American attack on Belchite as starting on the afternoon of September 1.  Yet here Merriman has already noted that Eric Nyberg and Wallace Burton had been killed on the August 31 diary pages (again, investigation by Milly Bennett on the death of Burton, her lover, places the date of his death as September 2 from a sniper who hit him between the eyes).  Merriman notes that Owen Smith and Canadian Jock Hoshooley had been wounded.   Merriman again chides Amlie for making up excuses that the losses were high.  Contemporary accounts say that of the “25” men who were mustered (the number was actually 22), only two made it back out uninjured when the retreat was ordered.   Some according to Landis (Gabby Klein and Saul Birnbaum in particular) were stuck near the ditch and could not get out until a tank approached the Church, took a couple of shots and while it was the target of the fire, the Americans backed out.³  Not to get too far ahead in the story of Belchite, Amlie places the main part of the action of his company on the 2nd and 3rd of September and we will include a transcript from his diary on the next Merriman diary page.

Merriman says that the tank actions were not effective, but maneuvering a tank into narrow alleys with no room to turn was suicidal for the tankers.   Merriman says that he spent his day in the trenches and when he called for a concentrated attack, nothing happened.  Merriman tried to move the 24th Battalion but communication was poor and contact was lost with them.  Amlie will note in his diary that they had no idea where the Lincolns were.

At the end of the day, Copic and Merriman call in the Brigade commanders but not all of them come in.  Chapayev, for one, did not show up.  Hans Amlie takes the brunt of the criticism and the commanders are reminded that Mediana is expected to be counterattacked by the 150th Division of the Fascists.  It is important that the resources being expended at Belchite move north.   Merriman says that James Bourne is now the Political Commissar so Robbie Robinson was replaced during the battle.  Merriman says that he was sick.   Merriman says that “O’Daire {is} weak”.  Paddy O’Daire took over the British Battalion upon the death of Peter Daly.   “18 men expect to go home soon and are watching themselves”.  If you thought that you soon would be out, it is possible that they would not put themselves on the line.   It is likely that these men are in the 57th Battalion and have seen many leading British comrades (Aitken, Cunningham, Tapsell, etc.) repatriated and may have inferred that this is now Brigade policy.   They did not realize that these men were removed for coming into conflict with Copic and the Brigade leadership.

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¹ Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid, p 221.

² Dave Engels, Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid. pg 262.

³ Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid, pg 287.