Category Archives: Belchite

19-20 Septiembre Merriman’s first diary comes to a close

September 19

Robert Merriman’s last pages in his first diary. September 19 was the last entry in this diary, except for notes added in the remaining pages from the fall months.

Merriman finishes his thought from the previous page.   He and Copic have words over Merriman’s plan to send James Bourne to Albacete to deal with the British unrest.   Richard Baxell says “On September 4, 1937,   Will Paynter wrote Harry Pollitt, advising him that yet again the battalion was in a perilous state, with only sixty active volunteers, and complaining that ‘for the last three months there has only been a trickle of volunteers coming in'”.¹     A major policy shakeup will occur on 23 September where the International Brigades are formally integrated into the Spanish Army and where 50% of the soldiers in each Battalion should be Spaniards.  Much of the unrest revolves around the XVth Brigade losing its identity as an English speaking and Anglo-American led unit.   Steve Nelson’s angry letter back to Merriman can also be viewed in that light.    Antony Beevor asserts that volunteers who arrive in Albacete during September could be  literally shanghaied into other units.²   The conspiracy theory of how the Brigades were integrated into the Spanish Army, however, is contradicted by the reality that after September 1, 1937, 320 more Americans would arrive in Spain (including the writer’s father) and would end up in the XVth Brigade. Merriman sends Bourne off to Albacete to argue the case for the XVth.

Chapayev (Yugoslav Commander) and Fred Copeman of the British Battalion.  Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_177024.  Tamiment Library, NYU

Chapayev (Yugoslav Commander) and Fred Copeman of the British Battalion. Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_177024. Tamiment Library, NYU

Fred Copeman was quoted by Richard Baxell as actually being in favor of strict militarization of the XVth Brigade.  Copeman said:

I was determined that in future an advance would be under the strict discipline of capable officers.  An officers’ mess was organized, with its own cookhouse and other amenities.  All men, from section leader upwards, had meals with the battalion commander.  Men were expected to salute all officers.  This at first was a knotty problem.  I decided the best way to overcome it was to start saluting every man myself, irrespective of rank, whom I met in the village.  It was surprising how quickly the lads took this up and, with few exceptions, came to make a point of getting their salute in first”.¹

Doran, Merrimans, Gerlach, Stepanovich

David Doran, Marion Merriman, Bob Merriman, John Gerlach (Comrade Ivan), and possibly Stepanovich, ALBA PHOTO 177-177027, Tamiment Library, NYU

Both Merrimans are still in Almochuel and Milly Bennett arrives with “KoKo” (probably Connie de la Mora).   Merriman says that she has been talking with Hans Amlie and Bill Halliwell about the death of her erstwhile lover, Wallace Burton.   Milly Bennett will marry Hans Amlie.

Bradley and Smrcka

Carl Bradley (l) and Radomir Smrcka (r), ALBA PHOTO 11_0730, Tamiment Library, NYU

Milly is working for Ernest Hemingway, getting material on the battles of Quinto and Belchite.  She has interviewed most of the senior staff including Copic, Radomir Smrcka, Carl Bradley, Phil Detro and others.   Merriman says that they drove over to Belchite to see the city and this could be the point described by Marion Merriman (and quoted previously here).   Stepanovich goes along.

Hugh Slater and the British are going to Lerida.

Merriman says that there was an arrest in Moscow in the Foreign Department.   No details are forthcoming.

This page ends Diary #1 and the remaining pages in the diary are notes and fragments from earlier in the year.   Merriman will begin a new Diary #2 on September 29.

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¹  Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors, ibid., p 313-314.

² Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, ibid.

9-10 Septiembre The XVth Brigade retires from Belchite to rest positions

September 9-10, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 9 and 10, 1937

Taking of Belchite

Article in La Vanguardia, Barcelona, from September 7, 1937. Source: http://http://hemeroteca-paginas.lavanguardia.com/

Merriman holds the fort while Copic goes to the Division Staff meeting and continues the battle of Belchite.  At that meeting, General Walter and Lieutenant Colonel Copic are faced with the claim that the XII Division of the Army of the East (which contained the 24th Brigade which contained the 153rd Battalion) entered Belchite on the 3rd of September and took the city.  They claimed that the XVth Brigade was pulled out of the battle because of looting.    This infuriated Walter and he made it one of his 30 traitorous actions that he documented in his departure assessments.¹  As a result of the meeting, the Chief of Staff of the XIIth Division was removed for claiming the victory in Belchite.  On September 7, Colonel Sanchez Plaza of the XII Division claimed the victory in La Vanguardia newspaper in Barcelona.  On the 5th of September, however, La Vanguardia had a banner headline that Belchite had fallen, quoting General Pozas who held a press conference on the 4th of September.   President Companys of Barcelona released a press release for the September 5th edition congratulating the Army of the East and General Pozas on his victory.  Given the timing of the Propaganda War versus the actual war, Merriman and Copic’s “Party Order” has additional urgency.  While it did force the taking of the town, it did so at the expense of many deaths and as we will see shortly, considerable loss of respect amongst the XVth Brigade troops.

Mac-Paps are sent up

Command Order #156 from Commander Belov in Albacete to the command of the XVth Brigade. RGASPI Fond 545/Opis 2/Delo 57/page 253. RGASPI online archives, Moscow, Russia.

Merriman moves the Brigade to Vinaceite which is on a parallel road from Belchite to Azaila.  A number of small villages are in this area including Almochuel where the Americans will ultimately end up.  Merriman runs into a severe dust storm on the way and puts his car into the ditch.   He finds Rollin Dart who is there to place the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion which has moved up from Tarazona.   Merriman is surprised that they are at the front already as he was not sure they were ready.  He would have also received the Order of the Day from Commander Belov at Albacete to the left.  In French, it says he is sending up the Mac-Paps on September 5 and they should be kept behind the lines because they were not ready.  As an indication:

Belov to Intendencia

Service Note 8242 pursuant to Command Order 156. Belov informs the Intendencia that 100 members of the Mac-Paps don’t have shoes on their feet. He says “It is mandatory that soldiers take shoes to the front”. 545/2/57/255 RGASPI.

Kitchen on a train

Kitchen on a train near Quinto, November 1937. ALBA Photo 11-1770, Tamiment Library, NYU

Van Der Bergh

Cuban Juan Corona (left), Captain Van Den Berghe (center) and Marty Hourihan (right), photo from the Paul Burns Collection and from the International Brigades in Spain website of our colleague, Kevin Buyers.

The 700 men of the Mac-Paps actually got out of Tarazona del la Mancha at noon on September 8 by train. On the 10th, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion arrives by rail to Azaila and they are met by the Lincoln and British Battalions who have marched back to Azaila.   The men were promised to get new arms.   Merriman gets the men placed, but is ordered to move to Albalate the next day.  Merriman expects “Basha” Van Den Berghe to have done some of the preparatory work but he is “apathetic”.     This is the first time we have seen this name attributed to Amandus or Armand Van Den Berghe.  Van Den Berghe is worried about the appropriation of land and buildings for billets.    They work on a policy on how to deal with the locals.  Merriman discusses the ability of Rollin Dart to lead the Mac-Paps and he, Joe Dallet and Bob Thompson believe he is not a strong enough leader.  The Mac-Pap command will change again before the next battle in October.

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¹ Radosh et al., Spain Betrayed, pp 481-482.

7-8 Septiembre “Good evening in a dirty place”

September 7-8, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 7 and 8, 1937.

Merriman finds out on September 6 that his adjutant Sidney Shostek was shot.   Shostek was walking with a prisoner behind a tank and was killed by a sniper.  Marion Merriman fills in some details:

Only the square admitted enough light for Bob and me to read the Fascist posters still stuck to broken walls, posters depicting the horrors of Marxism rather than the horrors of the war that a small group of Fascists had started.  I noticed there were posted rules for the modesty of young women, rules requiring long skirts and long sleeves, saying sin is woman’s because she tempts man.  There were no posters promising a government for all of the people.

As we walked, the thought of Sidney Shosteck, so young and sincere and intelligent, who should have walked beside us, heightened my sense of tragedy of the ruined city.  Bob told me again how he had sent Sid into Belchite on a mission after most of the fighting was over, not believing his aide to be in any real danger.

Fascist Barracks

The Falangist barracks in Belchite. Near where Sidney Shostek was killed. ALBA PHOTO 11-1227, Tamiment Library, NYU

“Sidney was killed outright,” Bob said.  “I feel his loss more than any other person I’ve known here.”  Bob had kept Sid out of the street fighting as much as possible.  Then, in a crucial moment, he had sent him to direct a tank with a prisoner to show them where the military headquarters of the Fascists were.  The prisoner went to the front of the tank and Sidney behind.  But a second-story sniper shot Sid in the forehead.  He never knew what hit him, Bob, said shaking his head as we walked.   He added, quietly, “Sidney’s loss here is great.  It will be felt by all of us.”

As Bob talked, I held his arm.  I felt I had to support him….  Suddenly we heard piano music.  “Look,” Bob said, quietly, hushing me before I could respond.  There, across a street in half a house, the front walls blown away, the inside looking like a stage, sat a Spanish soldier at a grand piano, playing Beethoven.¹

Merriman is sorry that he cannot find the body but otherwise doesn’t reveal his true feelings.   He says that Wattis was injured as was Bill Wheeler and Sidney was killed “while I sang Russian songs”.  One wonders if Merriman was feeling guilt because he was with Copic instead of his men.   He and Steve Nelson will soon face criticism for having been with the men during the battle.  Merriman works on administrative duties on the 7th and hears the story about the 12th Army Corps (in which the Spanish 153rd Brigade resides) making claims of having taken Belchite on September 3.  This is the story that General Walter documented in his exit document in November 1938.   This story will ripple for days.

Constancia de la Mora, of the Foreign Press Office, and Milly Bennett are in Belchite but Merriman misses them.  They are with a reporter from what appears to be a Russian wire service or newspaper.  From Marion’s memoir, it is likely that she is with them as well.  Merriman was in Azaila on the road to Hijar where there was a field hospital.   Steve Nelson was there and Merriman talks to him and signs him up for more political duties.   Paul Block, who was the Commissar of Company 3, died in the hospital.   It appears that Dr. Irving Busch was the head of the hospital and looked in on Nelson.

North, Merriman and Minor

Joe North, Bob Merriman, Lou Secundy, Earl Browder, Vladimir Copic, Bob Minor, David Doran and Briton David Kamy, Teruel, January 1938. ALBA Photo, 11_1865, Tamiment Library, NYU

The political staff from Albacete arrives:  Joe North of the Daily Worker, Bill Lawrence, Ed Bender, Bob Minor and Bob Kerr (not “Ken”) who was the Canadian responsible.   Merriman returns to the Brigade Headquarters north of Belchite.   He says that Minor and Steve Nelson  discussed things with a person (with an unreadable name) late into the night but Merriman went to sleep.  The order here is jumbled because it would have been impossible for Nelson to move with his injury.

On the morning of the 8th, North and Bender go into Belchite with Merriman.   Merriman sees looting going on and apparently does not try to stop it.   He, himself, picks up two bedspreads for Marion.   While the Americans might think this is the “spoils of war”, the conflict between the Spanish and Internationals over integration of the Brigades into the Spanish Army would be aggravated if the Spanish believed that the Americans were stealing from the people.

Fred Lutz

Abe Harris, two unknown soldiers, and Frederick Lutz at the Brigade Intendencia at Mondejar.   It is possible that one of the two unknown men in this photo is Ernesto Martinez.

Merriman fights with George Kaye and Ernesto Martinez over the operation of the Intendencia.   Ernesto Martinez and Frederick Lutz would lead the Intendencia into April, 1938² .  Food was missing for several days in Belchite and even water was in short supply at the beginning of the assault.   Copic thinks the Intendencia did ok, but Merriman disagrees and had to deal with the risk of rebellion in the ranks because supplies were slow to follow the troops in.  Merriman sends George Kaye back to Perales to get more supplies.   Merriman says that he has a tiff with British Political Commissar Mark Millman.

Merriman sees a copy of “Our Fight”, the newspaper published by the Brigades and talks to Frank Ryan who was the editor of the paper.   Merriman finishes the day noting that snipers are still around and killed two of the Brigade cavalry.

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¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid., pp 172-3.

² RGASPI Archives, Fond 545/Opus2/Delo 118/p130, Moscow.

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 …..

3-4 Septiembre “Great Sport”

September 3-4, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 3 and 4, 1937

Don Thayer

Donald Thayer, new Adjutant of the Lincoln Battalion, Belchite. ALBA Photo 177-188045, Tamiment Library, NYU

Lamb

Captain Leonard Lamb of the Lincoln Battalion. ALBA Photo 11 – 1306

Merriman gets his diary back on the correct date and updates the assault on Belchite.  Early on September 3, the Lincolns and 59th Spanish Battalion moved up to the road on the outskirts of Belchite and he says that the Dimitrov Battalion was inside the Fabrica.  Men are in a pretty desperate state, having not been fed for several days and having little drinking water.   Merriman reveals that Hans Amlie had been wounded and was out of action (Amlie’s notes agree that he was shot during the assault on Belchite, but Amlie appears to tell Milly Bennett that he carried on).  Canadian Bill Halliwell, who along with Amlie was a Lincoln Company commander at Brunete, was also wounded in Belchite.   Leonard Lamb was now Commander of the Lincolns and Donald Thayer had become the Adjutant.    Steve Nelson, the Brigade Commissar, had led men through the ditch into the Fabrica.   The assault on the church with men throwing Mill’s Bombs (grenades) continued but many men would be shot trying to get into the church and break down a barricade across the square.   Merriman says that Robbie Robinson is still carrying on (and we are left to wonder if that is a positive or negative comment).

Artillery continues to pound the city and the Fascists are holed up in underground passages.  Merriman says that that must be how there are so many troops there.   Merriman tries to prod the 153th Brigade into the city but they are hunkered down behind a hill and a large building.   The 24th Spanish Battalion also would not attack.  Merriman says Lamb tried to force them to move by pulling to the left, which would have opened a flank against the 24th.   Merriman says that their political commissar was killed.  This would be Henry Eaton of Los Angeles (discussed in the posting of September 1 and 2).  In a curious sentence in discussing Chapayev he says “They hold back” and what looks like “anarcho front”.   That probably means that the Dimitrovs were not “holding back” in the assault but rather controlling the back of the church and the 153 Anarchist battalion holding the front.

Merriman gets a letter passed to him that he has to attack even if the Americans have to go it alone.   George Wattis works his way up to the Fabrica and using grenades moves a group of men into town where they clear 50 or sixty houses.   From the current ruins in Belchite, this is likely to be the buildings south and west of the Fabrica, or the very westernmost buildings in town.  A significant part of the town lay eastward of the square in front of San Agustin church, running down the Calle Mayor towards San Martin de Tours Church.

Merriman, Sid Shostek, and Bill Skinner go into the lines to see what is happening first hand.   Merriman says that Copic was really scared on the 3rd by bombing which came close to the observation post.  On the night of 3-4 September, several men came asking for information and Merriman is suspicious of their motives.  He calls them “maybe bad eggs”.  Merriman splits his staff and sends some up the Mediana road eight kilometers to where the 57th British Battalion is dug in.  Merriman is uncomfortable about how spread out his Brigade has become.  He says that 46 airplanes attacked the Brigade on the 3rd.

On the 4th of September, the attack is not moving forward.   People were exhausted, and motivating them difficult.   By the end of this, the sixth day at Belchite, the Church was still in the hands of the Fascists and at most the brigades had only moved a few blocks.   General Walter comes to the Brigade and tries to motivate Copic and Merriman.  He tells them that he should make everyone Lieutenants if they attack.   Finally, Walter and Copic pull out their trump card and says that they have an “Order of the Party” to attack.   For the Internationals, this is serious business because ignoring a Party order meant termination of any support that one would have from its political arm.   Walter says that if the Fascists hold the town, they would play this up as a major political victory.  What is not said is that the Republican Government has already published stories saying that Belchite is theirs.

San Agustin Church

San Agustin Church, Belchite (photo taken by author in 2013). The photo is taken from the main plaza and the fabrica is to the left and the open field is to the right.

Merriman goes back in and, with Wattis’s help, figures a plan of attack.   A name which may be “Lanser” (i.e. Manny Lanser) is said to be “awful”.   The plan is to attack the Church from 3 sides (with the Dimitrovs and the 153rd/24th battalions supporting the Americans.)   Merriman calls in artillery fire to soften the town more before the attack.  Chapayev of the Dimitrovs was opposed to artillery but perhaps hoped to save civilians.   Skinner, Shostek and Merriman go in to throw grenades at the barricades and he says they took the Church out, with little found.

Manny Lanser tells the story somewhat differently:

We made a couple of attempts to storm the Church but they were unsuccessful.  Whenever our artillery shelled the Church, the Fascists ran out and took refuge in the town.  But whenever we attacked, the Fascists took advantage of the pause in the shelling to run back into the Church through the main door (on the opposite side from us) and again get behind the parapets they had built in the windows and doorways.  Their machine-guns could then easily repel our attacks.

Unable to make headway, we sent out scouting patrols to observe just where the Fascists used to dodge and find the best route for attack.  One of these reconnoitering parties led by Dan Hutner, was observed by the Fascists.  In the exchange of fire, Hutner was killed.

In one of these charges we succeeded in taking a prisoner who gave us information on the layout of the streets and pointed out to us the Fascist strongholds in the vicinity of the Church.  We made our plans accordingly.

The Church had three entrances; our plan called for a rush on all three of them simultaneously.  Our artillery and tanks were to shell the Church to drive the Fascists out.  While the shelling was going on our storming parties were to approach as close as possible to the Church.  The shelling was to cease at a fixed moment and our men were to dash into the Church before the Fascists had a chance to get back.

We collected most of the Lincoln-Washington men inside the factory where our Battalion Headquarters were.  A few machine-guns with a crew of two men each were left in our tenches to fire at the houses around the Church to keep the Fascists from shooting at our advancing men.  A machine-gun was set up in a window in the factory, trained on the Church.  The rest of the Machine-Gun Company was assigned to participate in the attack.

The attackers were divided into three groups: one to attack along the road to the left, the other across a field to the right, the third to act as reserve.  

The artillery started as per plan.  Our tanks came up also and shelled the Church from a distance of about 500 yards while our machine-guns opened up heavy covering fire.

When the advance started, the men on the left ran into heavy machine-gun barrage and suffered many casualties without being able to make much progress. 

The group on the right, only a couple of dozen men, charged from the trenches about forty yards from the Church.  They were led by Dave Engels, Commissar of No. 1 Company of the Lincoln-Washingtons.  They had to cross a deep gully that ran the length of the Church-wall.  Once across they knocked down the Fascist parapets built on the further side of the gully (now abandoned owing to the shelling) and advance on the Church.  Just as they entered from the rear the Fascists began to come back through the front door which faced the interior of the town.  There was a battle of hand-grenades and the Fascists ran out.

Lionel Levick

Lionel Levick, ALBA PHOTO 11-1275, Tamiment Library, NYU

Several men led by {Lionel} Levick ran up to the front door and standing in the open doorway started shooting at the Fascists.  Levick’s squad in turn was being fired at from all sides by the Fascists who had positions in the houses surrounding the Plaza in front of the Church.  One after the other was hit, but they hung on since this was the only entrance through which the Fascists could rush the Church and regain control.

The fire was becoming more and more deadly but the boys held on grimly until the others succeeded in bringing up a machine-gun which, placed in the doorway, gave us definite control.  Some of the men ran back to the trenches, brought back sandbags and built a barricade at the front door to protect the machine-gun and the men behind it.  The Church was definitely ours.²

Mark Strauss

Dr. Mark Strauss and Saul Wellman, ALBA PHOTO 11-0444, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman continues his narrative by saying that he and Skinner bombed  a few houses to show the troops how to fight in the city.  They then stopped, gathered up some bags of supplies dropped from airplanes and left the men to carry on.   Landis quotes Dr. Mark Strauss as having flashed his flashlight at airplanes and bags of supplies of ham, bread, letters were dropped on his location.  The bags included instruction to the Fascists to hold on, that the Fascists had retaken Quinto and were on the way.   All untrue.   The Lincolns were now being resupplied by the Fascists from the air.³

Another story by S. F. said:

We organized into groups to clean up the town street by street, house by house.  Each group had grenadiers, riflemen, and men carrying dry twigs and gasoline to set fire to houses where they encountered resistance.  When a house was occupied we would put a red blanket, mattress or bunting in the window to show the house was ours.  Major Merriman and Captain Phil Detro, both good pitchers, could be seen all over the place handgrenading the Fascists.4

Milly Bennett’s notes of her interview with Hans Amlie continued on Sept 4:

4th Sept (his notes)

Certain wall that had been broken thru earlier in day – Every man got his objectives – only 6 or 7 feet from enemy starting us in the face from behind walls.  We were able to develop the “fist punch” put quotes – they had machine-guns on us all the way & we gave them bombs & rifle fire (35 of us).  Rite in front of this wall 3 of our comrades killed & 7 wounded  falling all around of us – right in our very midst.  

Uliser Bauza, 20, Puerto Rican

Steve Cojeran, 40, old soldier, Detroit machinist

Boris Oretchkin, 40, New York, rr worker  Old Soldier

Couldn’t see Dmit{roff} Couldn’t see Wash.-Lincoln.  We charged up that hill alone!  Ten down.  Enemy behind walls throwing bombs and shouting.  Picked up wounded hauled them back to a little wall.  I dragged Sonchek {Steve Sonchek on the wounded lists?} – Just a regular bloody mess.  Shot twice. While had him in arms – shot again killed.  One valuable thing – Bolstered up rest of the batt.   Cojeran crawled back. Got behind knoll.  Said no further.   They on wall.  We under it.  Wounded. Here is chance for life.  Get up & run like a s.o.b.  With a bullet in his left ran.  Another bullet hit Cojeran & he went down yelling “Why don’t you go up & help your comrades” — He yelled it in English but Span understood – Span came up & began attack 3 hrs later & we helped by using knoll we’d held. Bombs thrown – Bldgs fired – Most occupied until nightlight.  Little plaza.  About 9 or 10 o’clock at nite, we got into 1st few houses.  We chewed our way in.  Prof. bombers brought in.  Has firing cap that throws bomb into the air.  We were 1st batt. in – we penetrated first plaza de la franco —

My men were terribly tired (this is a little bit of war strategy;  please let my men have four hours sleep.) went to     They took 2 hours, but after that could hardly keep up with them.5

Jaime Cinca has a website which discusses the Battle of Belchite.  He includes two maps which show detail of Belchite and the units which attacked the town.   It appears that the buildings northwest of San Agustin church were built after the war so they could not be the “barn”.  Discovering the approaches to the church is still an open discussion.

_______________________________

¹ Steve Nelson, The Volunteers, ibid., pp 186-187.

² Emanuel Lanzer, Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid., p265-266.

³  Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid, pg. 298.

4 S. F., Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid., p 269.

5 Milly Bennett, ibid. (Her notes on an interview with Hans Amlie).