5-6 Septiembre “Greatest Fun in Spain”

September 5-6, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 5 and 6, 1937

Merriman is pretty reserved in letting us have insight into his real feelings.  Today we get a peek into Bob Merriman’s psyche.  On the 5th of September, mopping up of Belchite continues after the Church and barricade has fallen.  Merriman says that he cannot find any of the leaders of the Lincoln Battalion so he, Sidney Shostek and George Wattis took initiative in working like soldiers.  Merriman says that this is the greatest “fun” he had in Spain.   After nine months in Spain and only a few hours truly on the line before being shot at Jarama, Merriman’s interest in fighting shows through.   The Dave Engels’ article in the Book of the XVth Brigade said that Merriman was everywhere throwing grenades and fire bombs.  The “fun” ended when a grenade dropped out of a building injuring George Wattis with about fifty pieces of shrapnel and Merriman was cut as well.

Merriman admits that he worked too much as a soldier and too little as a commander.  Copic sends out orders for him to report to the Estado Mayor and Copic and Merriman yell at each other for much of the day as they tour Belchite.   Merriman says that their advance in town is stopped at a barricade where a man got a bomb in the face.   Hans Amlie’s account for September 5 is in the notes below.

Soldiers, Belchite

View down the Calle Mayor towards the Plaza Republica, Belchite. Soldiers hold masks because of the smell of death. ALBA Photo 11_1226, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that Chapayev performed well and must have captured the Fascist hospital, staffed with nuns in their robes.  Merriman says that the dead were stacked like cordwood.  He said that there were sniper holes in the hospital and that women in the hospital served to bring supplies, apparently, to the soldiers.  The barricade at the end of town was in the vicinity of San Martin de Tours Church.  Like the San Agustin church, many fascist soldiers had holed up there and another standoff occurred with many injuries.   Merriman planned to flank the barricade overnight by breaking through the neighboring buildings.  Overnight, however, a grenade attack over the barricade injured Tom Hyde, who got shrapnel in his ankle.   Hyde’s son said that this injury effectively ended his father’s front line service and he was repatriated on the Ausonia in December 1938 (Richard Hyde, personal communication).   Overnight, guard was set up around the town although Merriman infers that some of the Fascists actually managed to escape.

Sound Truck

International Brigade Sound Truck at Codo. ALBA PHOTO 11-1335, Tamiment Library, NYU

On the morning of the sixth, the Republican sound truck arrived and David Doran (Assistant Brigade Commissar) and a Spanish soldier made an announcement to the troops on the other side of the barricade.

 

Steve Nelson recalls the events of the day:

Dave Doran

Dave Doran (near Huesca), ALBA Photo 177-177009, Tamiment Library, NYU

Dave Doran, who was my assistant up to this time, got hold of a propaganda truck, fitted with a phonograph, microphone, and loudspeaker.  Never mind how he got it.  He brought it up to the church, where the fascist resistance was centered.  Hastily, he wrote out a speech.  A Spanish boy read it into the microphone; the words went bellowing across the fascist lines.  “Fascist soldiers, those of you who are Spaniards, listen!” the loudspeaker thundered.  “Your leaders are lying to you.  Quinto is in Republican hands.  You will get no reinforcements.  The relief column sent from Saragossa has been smashed at Mediana.  There is no relief for you in Belchite, there is only death!” ….. “Come over to us and live.  If you don’t you will all be wiped out in our first assault.  We have you surrounded on all sides, so none of you can escape.  Our guns are trained on you this minute, to blow you to a million pieces.  …. Drop your arms and come over the barricades one by one.   All who come over will live.”¹

Then silence.  Doran’s emphasis on death brought the first soldier over the barricade.

“What’s the morale like?” Dave demanded. 

“Not good.  That speech on the loudspeaker — they are talking it over. The men are desperate, and only fear of the officers holds them;  the officers are shooting them on the least provocation.  But many have been killed or wounded.  and the church and basement are nearly full of wounded.  Many have had tourniquets on their arms or legs for three or four days, so gangrene has set in.  No operations are possible.  Ah, things are bad in there!”

“If this is true, could you go back and bring a group of them to our lines?”.   

The prisoner didn’t like the idea at all.  It was a risky business, going back. “If your men don’t shoot me, the others will.  And if the officers find out–“

“I know all that, but it’s the only choice we’re giving you.  Come back by way of this building, and slip your rifles across the sandbags”.¹

Fascist Prisoners

Fascists taken prisoner at Belchite, ALBA PHOTO 11-1146, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that this single artillery soldier started an avalanche of soldiers pushing their rifles over the barricade.  Amlie (notes below) tells an identical story. The assault on Belchite was over and the town that would not surrender to Napoleon surrendered to Doran.

Not all of the Fascists surrender peaceably.  Two or three hundred of the garrison tried to make a break for the fascist lines.   The story told by Lieutenant Hernández y Alcalá:

Afraid of the soldiers (those who wished to surrender) the officers stole away by one of the underground passages and took refuge in another strongly fortified building.  We realized that there was more hard fighting in front of us….  Acting on orders, we moved closer to the building.  Suddenly a few yards in front of us, we heard voices and distinguished a mass of people coming toward us.  Some were women.  There were shouts of “Camaradas!”   We thought they were more of the people that had been liberated.  But we always had orders to challenge all people coming from town and establish their identity before we let them pass.  Then one commander shouted, and we realized what was happening.  These were fascists who had escaped through one of the underground passages with which the town was honeycombed, and they were driving civilians before them in order to prevent us firing effectively.

Our commander called on them to halt.  The answer was a shower of grenades.  Women, children, men and Fascists were so mixed up and running in all directions that it was impossible in the bad light to distinguish anything clearly.  We noticed that some of the civilians were firing at us.  They were officers in disguise, and we found them out afterwards.  ….. It was terrible for the time it lasted.  But every one of the officers met his fate.”²

Dave Doran would become Commissar of the Brigade shortly.   Nelson tells why:

“Belchite was ours.  I went back to the factory. I was feeling good.  I hadn’t slept for a hell of a while but I felt good.  Everything was going fine.  

Inside the mill, I saw Dave Doran.  Dave shouted something and I started towards him.

‘Steve, look out for Cris’ake!’.   From the corner of my eye, I saw the window high in the factory wall and the church tower above the window, and it the same instant, something hit me hard on the cheek, and an terrible, fiery pain struck inside my thigh, and ran up into my stomach, a pain so fierce that I doubled up on the floor;  in spite of the pain I rolled toward the brick walls to keep from being hit again”.¹

Steve Nelson would survive, but never again see action.  Nelson would shortly be sent to Valencia to meet visitors and then ordered back to the US where he would go on a fund raising effort in speaking about Spain.

Merriman went into town after hearing of the surrender.   His first thoughts were to get his transportation out of town before it was grabbed by the 153rd Anarchist Battalion.  Merriman says that he “organized” some good stuff and later Karl Sverchevsky (General “Walter”) would complain that the 153rd Battalion sabotaged the reputation of the XVth Brigade:

17.  During the siege of Belchite, the fascist like command of the 12th Corps deluged the eastern front with lying and slanderous telegrams about the robbery and shootings that, supposedly the 15th International Brigade was engaged in, and about the impossibility of “bringing it up to the front line.”  At the same time, they provoked clashes between the anarchist elements and the internationalists and advised the commander of the 153rd Spanish Brigade to sabotage my orders.  This lie was so insolent and obvious that it even drove the command of the 5th Corps, which is not usually prone to put itself out for us, crazy, and Modesto then started a real row with Gen. Pozas, the front commander, over this and sent a very sharply worded telegram to Gen. Rojo demanding that the culprits be called to account.³

Fascist Posters

Fascist posters on the square in Belchite, September 1937. ALBA PHOTO 11-0596, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that he lost some trucks in the confusion over who “owned” the town and that he wanted to get his troops out as soon as possible onto the Mediana Road to move north, presumably to move to support the 57th British Battalion against an expected counterattack.   But the Brigade had time to collect souvenirs and Merriman appears to warn the troops that this is a religious town and the women are conservative so restraint is necessary.

Merriman says “Defensive war a great one”.   It seems that he is showing admiration for his enemy.   He says they were persistent until the end.   Merriman cannot find Sidney Shostek (more on this in the next posting).   Merriman gets promoted to Major for taking Belchite and the award was for his personal intervention on September 3rd which got the Americans moving into Belchite.   Recall, however, that he was under a “Party Order” and had little choice.

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¹  Steve Nelson, The Volunteers, ibid, p 186-7.

² Lieutenant Hernández y Alcalá, The Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid., pp 283-286.

³ Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2001, p.481-2.
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‡  Milly Bennett’s notes of her interview with Hans Amlie when he was in hospital.  From Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.   Transcription by RMH1 and many difficult and fuzzy sections in text:

Sept 5th
We’d went approx. one block together jointly with Span comrades. 5 or 6 men bust down door – Penetration every place. 9 am. Then Span one street & our little company with a few Spanish who wanted to be with us. Put up barricades. Parapets. Sandbags. Why did fascist concentrate main forces in plaza? Why not small details in outlying points? Our opinion was fascist officers saw that demoralization set in and didn’t trust small groups! Thus able to maintain iron control over men. Officers knew their fate if caught. If us, we’d make them fight every step of way.

We penetrated (our company) to a point where small bend in the street – we called it “deadman’s point” We were now about half a block from the fascists – Charlie Regan, 45, World War, Irish Catholic; Gave Regan instructions not to go down there – only about 10 feet away. Stick close to the wall. Fascists had a barricade just above the bend. He went down & was killed. Collected about 40 bags of grain. Most houses had animals – stretched em across with portholes. All of us were novices at street fighting. I had some general knowledge and some theories gathered from reading. Knew that barricade places at that posit. if properly manned & tenaciously held & an eternal vigilance that fascists would never get beyond that point. An hour or so later we saw the possible. of taking the sacks on the extreme right side and advancing them piecemeal to a position that would give us a greater advantage over any advance that the fascists might dare to make.

Our men were designated for guard at the barricade with one relief guard retiring 15 feet in the rear. Relieved every half hr. Too much strain on these fellows. 6 on the barricades 6 with to go on watch. Remaining given instructions to go top floors of houses we’d cleaned and to 1- see what surroundings looked like 2- begin break through walls found picks & crowbars to houses forward of our position —

House on right hand side toward plaza – on lower floor needed that house badly than any on street. Busted hole made two sniper holes. Comrade Merriman had an opportune moment use his skill with the rifle – All afternoon our men sniped fascists. Ephraim Bartlett, 49, I think Denver Col. old soldier coal miner, party comrade; sergeant crack shot. Able to afford his Communist visit. Such as never had before. On left hand side of street 3 houses nearer plaza – got range on back part of plaza.
Houses between us and plaza. Watch enemy movements. It was nice weather. After we built barrier went another street & recommended batt. off. this barricade building be done on other streets.

Later on they placed five bags on street and men wounded & attempted project given up.

Only protection or fighting power they had was few soldiers who stood around the corner – 2 blocks from fasc. barric. which meant any time the fascists tried to break down – our resistance would have been reduced.

There was not a full use of the houses upper floors. During whole day our artillery & tanks with remarkable precision exacting heavy ….. tolls from the fascists at Commander’s & plaza.

About four o’clock our comp given the assignment to leave our barricade to prepare for an attack on the fascist barricade went came into small alley. Where I came to that pt. question not standing but engaging immediate battle with fascists. Our plan was to assault their barricade and go into the plaza. Sent four men dash across. Four to advance up the str. with bombs in hands. Advanced from one door to another up towards barricades then our task to advance up the street door by door – old baseball technique – filling up street with smoke – well ahead of us. Covering screen for our advance. Most of our men advanced under cover of this. Lost no men. Louis Goslin killed before barricades.

7 killed 30. But after reaching the barricade, xxxx down several sacks began advancing down street toward plaza. Only few men of our company went along (10-12) beyond barricade led by Bradley. Met with serious fire working toward plaza. Without proper coordination in street

Has Sporty Sperry killed, 38, world war, killed 6 wounded – I dragged back — 2 killed, six seriously wounded Wounded had all they could do to get back. Bombs revolve fire; Immediate task forced us was to hold this fascist barricate. Went 15-20 feet up street had to go back & hard task build out in a full barricade so have range up & down the street.

Other comrades threw up sacks of wheat and grain – we build up a regular fortress. Rest struggling to more bombs—

Camarada! {unreadable} on many occasions fascists st. formed!{unreadable}

Learned later had barricades midst important fascist positions, hospitals, etc. Worried about … across fear they’d drop bombs. Threw bombs into windows houses across street. Had charlie horse for 2 days. Many times fasc. tried to get us from plaza but they were at a decided disadvantage. Our bombs and rifles persistent vigil. Drove em back. Made every man stay awake. I was just demanding keep your eyes open. Our barricade separated fascists & they were hogtied in there.

Half hour later first noises from basement house right had side barricade. Hollered down from cellar window. Who is there? Soldiers and civilians. Went down & found about 150. We’d only investigated upper floors. Came up through front way of house. Ripped down few bags of our barricade to let them thru. All morning long hundreds of civilians and soldiers passed through our barricades …..