September 1-2, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 1 and 2, 1937.

Alexander, Slater, Mildwater

Bill Alexander, Hugh Slater, and Jeff Mildwater, British Antitankers. ALBA Photo 11-1318, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman did not record events of September 1 and 2 and later wrote in the diary  under  the heading “General Comments”.   He was busy in the trenches and streets of Belchite trying to work their way into the city.   Instead it appears that Merriman is rating his commanders for future promotions.   He says Van den Berghe and Hugh Slater are working well.  Slater was the head of the British Anti-tank company.  He again complements Lou Secundy on his work in Transports/Auto-Park but says that the Intendencia is not working well.   Water and food will become a serious issue for troops on the front lines in Belchite.

Merriman notes that there are five whole Brigades (perhaps 8000 men) attacking Belchite and coordination is not easy.  He says it is hard to cut the bull.    Merriman wonders why the Fascists have not attacked this concentration of men, although he notes that there have been several good bombing runs on the Loyalist troops.  He notes that Peter Hampkins has come up from the Pozo Rubio Officer Training School but Merriman doesn’t know where to put him at this point.   Merriman is told to offer people who volunteer for raiding parties into Belchite that they will get two weeks leave in Valencia.

In the Hoover Archives at Stanford University, Mildred Bennett’s memoirs hold a notebook which is the account of Hans Amlie, the 2nd Company Commander in the 24th Battalion, of the attack on Belchite.  Too long to fully reproduce here in one segment, it give a timeline of the events of September 2 and 3 which were two very busy days for the Brigades and adds to what Merriman can only briefly tell us in his diary.  I believe from the handwriting that the diary was written by Milly Bennett when she interviewed the injured Hans Amlie in hospital in the second week of September, 1937.   She mixes her voice between his and her reporting of it.  And the notes are just that, notes of a newspaper reporter, cryptic with misspellings and abbreviations:¹

Sept 2nd – American unit assigned storm city & 1st few comrades who went forward – leader Henry Eaton, 27, Los Angeles, fell in rain machine-gun fire (polit com). Mother joined party last month . Loved by all comrades. Named co. after him. Real soldier. Never knew what fear was. Any dangerous mission he was 1st to volunteer — (son former Mayor Los A{ngeles}) said wanted to be active internat. labor defense. Another good trait – kept diary in forward gave his convictions; not a day or event that he missed. While he carried on. Obvious Mission couldn’t be carried out. About 11 am. Pulled back his body in the evening and dug a grave – wrote up a slab “Henry Eaton, a member of the Comm. party of the United States died, Sept 2nd 1937. He was a comm. A brave soldier and a comrade. He was the type of comm. that only the full knowledge of what Communism is. Could have created and it is clear also that his mother had a great influence in making him what he was long before he every heard of Communism and Spain. Soil will become enriched with his blood. The Spanish people will build a new society the type that Henry Eaton dreamt of and fought for. We name our Co. the Henry Eaton Co. and pledge to carry on”. Board from top ammunition box. On other side translation in Spanish.

3rd – whole batt called back behind lines & our co. instructed go other point – Copic gave em “pep” talk – Resumed old positions at 11am. Instructed to advance up hill and begin to carry out attack in broad daylight – while Span. comrades to advance simultaneously about 100 meters to right. At 11 all three sections in battle order ready to advance 350 meters up a hill and we were to receive as cover machinegun & artillery fire. We started. With enemy sniper & machine gun fire we very ably used the gullies natural contour of country & made a spectacular dash (with Span with you) No – they weren’t there. The rest of batt staying in posit. without moving. Gained our objective.

In a “I come not to praise Caesar” moment, Merriman admits that Copic works well and then follows it with a Russian phrase in quotations.   I have to thank a relative of mine who dug down into the dirt of our proletarian roots to give me a literal translation of “быть свойю мать”  as well as the idiomatic working-class epithet.  It literally means “he would fuck own mother”.   That would fit into the context here that Copic works hard but would not hesitate to screw his own people.   The less kind idiomatic interpretation is “fucking moron”.  In either case, Merriman doesn’t hesitate to criticize Copic for throwing people into the breach without properly preparing a strategy for the attack.

Amlie, above, also notes the Copic “pep talk” that hauled the men out of the lines on September 3.  Again it looks like Merriman has gotten a day or so ahead in his diary of events.   Another interesting note in the Amlie statement “With Span with you” in parentheses is probably Milly asking that of Amlie and getting his response “No, they weren’t there”.

Merriman notes that the kitchen situation is difficult with the five brigades wanting a unified kitchen but in reality the Americans and English have one and the Spanish 24th Brigade and Dimitrov Battalion having their own.  Merriman says that Steve Nelson is getting on ok in the battle at this point and that they want a sound truck to try to convince the villagers and fascist troops to surrender. A truck would come by the 5th of September.

On the 2nd of September (outside the notes section), Merriman says that General Sebastian Pozas Perea, head of the Army of the East, ordered an immediate attack with no preparation.   This must have echoed in Merriman’s head.  Pozas had a track record of some famous failures.  He created and was in charge of the Arganda Military Group organized at Jarama.²   It is likely that the order from the top which sent the British and Americans over the top into deadly machine guns there came from Pozas’ command.  He later led action at Huesca that failed.²  Now at Belchite, he again is moving chess pieces without feedback from his on-the-ground commanders.  In his other excellent book on the development of the Spanish Civil War, Art Landis calls Pozas “incompetent”.  During the November 6, 1936, initial assaults on Madrid, Pozas and General Miaja were given mixed up orders by Largo Caballero on whether or not to defend Madrid or passively wait for negotiation… all this as General Yaguë’s armor was rolling towards the bridges over the Manzanares.   In the midst of the battle, Pozas retired to his base at Tarançón, turning over his command to Miaja.³   Pozas would continue to be in charge of the Army of the East until after the Retreats in the Spring of 1938 where he would be replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Juan Perea.²

Some units responded to the order given by Pozas to attack (the Americans and the 153rd Anarchist Battalion) and others did not.  Hans Amlie notes above that the Spanish did not move from their positions.   The 153rd Battalion will move around the XVth to the northeast and to try to get into town from that direction.


¹  Mildred Bennett, Register of the Milly Bennett Papers, 1915-1960, ∞ http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf6n39n837

²Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., p 53, 488.

³ Art Landis, Spain: the Unfinished Revolution, International Publishers, NY. p 260.