Category Archives: In Hospital

21-22 Marzo “Happy to See My Sweet Girl”

21-22 March

Robert Merriman’s diary for the pages of March 21 and 22. Merriman wrote these pages on March 25, catching up on missed diary postings.

An earlier diary post noted that on the 16th of March, Marion Merriman arrived from Moscow.  She would be in Spain for the next seven months.  She related her reuniting with her husband:

Despite the war around us, being with Bob in Murcia made me happy.  We stayed together in his room in the Hospitale d’Internationale.  One morning as I awoke a wild wailing reached through the corridors into our room and terrified me.  Bob, too, was awakened.  He saw my fear, reached over to calm me, then broke into laughter.  Don’t be alarmed, he said.  It was only the maid out in the hall singing flamenco.  I’d never heard the eerie, wild Spanish music before.  But I grew quickly to love it.¹

Marion’s book is often personal but no passage so exceeds her own diary which she started to keep at Murcia.  She said:

But what do I know other than my feelings?  Rushing, exalting, changing in moments like these.  People.  Bob who made this possible for me, for whom nothing is  humdrum, routine or ordinary, who knows the reasons and facts better than I, who I follow joyfully because I love him and believe in him.¹

Merriman mentions a Jan Kurske.  Kurske was also in hospital in Murcia at this time (see the discussion on May 21-22).  He says Jan returns to Valencia to meet with “Kate”.  Kate is Kate Foster Kurske, a reporter in Valencia, and Kurske’s wife.  Kate later became Kate Mangan and she and Jan Kurske left an unpublished manuscript.²  Merriman mentions that Bob Thompson left for Albacete and then for “rest home”, perhaps for some “R&R” (rest and relaxation).

In the hospital, Jack Brent is still bad (we discussed him previously and he will live with this injury for the rest of his life).  The Avgherinos is Constantine (Costas) Avgherinos.   He was wounded in the leg on February 21, 1937, with the British Battalion.  Alan Warren (private communication) has provided a short bio:

Born in 1912, Constantine Avgherinos joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934. He joined the British Battalion after his arrival on 10th of January 1937 ( British Battalion Identification Number 140). Wounded on the same day as his brother, Heracles/Hercules, Constantine Avgherinos was less fortunate; fever and complications set in during his convalescence although the wound was not that serious. He died in Pasionaria Hospital in Murcia, two months later on 30th April, 1937.

Obviously, by March 25, the wound was infected and his leg was removed.  Anti-biotics to stop gangrene in wounds were rudimentary in Spain.

American Robert Wolk had been placed in charge of the Irish and Cubans who had been combined into one company after the losses of the 27th of February.³  In the description of the fighting on the 14th of March, Landis says:

When word reached Captain Hourihan that the Spaniards were retreating, he, together with {David Everett} Jones, the Battalion Commissar, and Robert Wolk, Adjutant of the First Company, assembled a number of riflemen and went immediately to the threatened sector…Since the bulk of the assault had been directed farther south and around the side of a long hill, the Americans sought only to secure the area they had occupied.  Hourihan handled the deployment of his men skillfully, and casualties were held to a minimum.  Only one man is known to have been killed.  His loss, however, was felt strongly by the men.  He was Robert Wolk, the ex-Navy man and Adjutant of the First Company.³

Wolk came to the hospital with a shoulder wound.  He was talking when he came in but died overnight.  Merriman will describe his funeral in the next page….

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¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid., p 119.

² Jan Kurske and Kate Foster Kurske Mangan, The Jan Kurske Papers 1934, 1936-1937, 1998 “The Good Comrade”,  International Institute of Social History, Cruquiusweg 31 1019 AT Amsterdam The Netherlands, 2011.

³ Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., p. 121.

17-20 Marzo “Harris returns but he is still bad”

March_17-18

March 17 and 18th pages of Robert Merriman’s diary. This was written about March 25.

Merriman continues to describe Murcia in his diary but notes that James Harris has returned and they talked.  Clearly, this episode affected Merriman significantly and he seems really to care about Harris’ welfare.  But Harris still shows signs that he is not really past the paranoia that affected him in Albacete and Jarama.  He makes statements about Harris “finding a big rich fascist in his mind’s eye” and we are to wonder if this was someone in town or Merriman himself.  “Harris bought stripes” means that he had purchased the insignia of a Captain for his uniform but he was uncertain if he still had his command.  Wearing stripes when you were busted would certainly put you in jail.

Jame Harris

Orders of the Day for the XIIIth battalion at Fuentes del Ebro. The first paragraph says that James Harris was executed for desertion in the face of the enemy. RGASPI Archives Fond 545/Opis3/Delo203 page 243. Moscow.

The Command must have felt Harris was ok if he was sent back to Murcia as a commissar, but it would have allowed him to serve while also being watched by medical staff.  “and to go on soon to Benicassim” would put Harris in the rear in a convalescent hospital on the Coast.  Merriman notes that Newman {Dr. Neumann — see March 13-16 posting} found Harris’ papers left in a café.   Clearly they were concerned about his stability.  We continue to the next two pages of the diary where we find that Harris was examined at Benicassim and the word was that he was going to be sent back to the US.   Later in the diary, however, Harris is still in Spain and he will be assigned to the XIIIth Dombroski Battalion.   We have found evidence (above from RGASPI) that Harris again panicked under fire at Fuentes del Ebro and he was executed by the command of the XIIIth Battalion on October 14, 1937.   It is quite sad that Newman did not carry out the order to repatriate Harris.  It could have saved him.

19-20 March

Robert Merriman’s diary on 19-20 March pages. This would have been written about March 25.

In Murcia, Merriman meets up again with Bert Overton, who was  a Company commander of the British at Jarama.   Overton’s story is here.  Merriman picks up on the problems with Overton, who is defensive of his record.  As the linked story points out, Overton was suspected of retreating at the front and leaving the Lincolns exposed.   James Carmody, scholar of the English Battalion, sent along the following notation:

Bert Overton was Company Commander of 4th Company.  Overton panicked and shouted the company was surrounded.  He led the charge to the rear and threw a grenade into the Battalion Ammo dump in order to make the Battalion retreat, since they would have no Ammo.   Albert ‘Bert’ Overton was a former Welsh Guardsman.¹

We find out on these pages that Merriman knew that Marion Merriman would soon arrive and he arranged for rooms for her at Radio Hospital in Murcia.   This hospital is said to be on the river.  Marion Merriman arrives in Murcia on March 16 and will hear much more in the coming days …..

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¹ James Carmody, private communication, May 29, 2014.

13-14 Marzo Waiting for Marion and Milly

13-14_March

Robert Merriman’s diaries from the 13th and 14th of March. He wrote this material on March 25

 

15-16 March

Robert Merriman’s diary from 15-16 March.

March 14 arrives and Merriman is isolated from Jarama.  He spends time with Bob Thompson and Thomas Bennett, who leaves for Albacete from Murcia.   He speaks of Newman, but we have previously seen this spelled Neuman.¹  But the war had not stopped to wait for Merriman.  On the 14th of March, the Fascists, led by Italian two-man tanks attacked the left flank of the Brigades’ lines at Jarama.  The attack hit first some relatively raw Spanish recruits who could not hold their trenches.

Allan Johnson

David Mates (left) and Major Allan Johnson (right). This photograph was taken at Fuentes de la Venta at Morata de Tejuña just east of the Jarama lines. Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_191047. Tamiment Library, NYU

But first, we should introduce a new Lincoln, James Allan Donald McNeil (Allan Johnson) arrived in Spain and took over command of the XVth Brigade operations in the field.  Johnson had a strong military background (a graduate of the United States War College, General Staff School and a regular Captain in the Massachusetts National Guard.²  Johnson was an excellent strategist and wrote several articles in the 1937 Volunteer for Liberty on how to protect troops from aircraft and how to build effective fortifications.  His arrival was crucial given the decimation of the Brigade leadership on February 27th.  The Brigade “found” Johnson in Figueras on the evening of the 27th and rushed a car across Spain to pick him up and bring him to the front.  Johnson immediately assessed the state of the Brigade and personally made trips back to Albacete to replace the worn Maxim machine gun barrels with usable equipment.²   He improved the Brigade trenches so that they could be defended.

On the 14th of March in a state of dying interest on the Madrid front, the Fascists took one last attempt to cut the Chinchon-Morata -Titulcia road.  Using Italian two-man Fiat tanks, they rolled up a section of line on the left flank of the Brigade and chased out the Spanish troops holding that flank.   Eby says:

Cunningham

Jock Cunningham of the British Battalion, Photo: 177_179053 of the Moscow Archive ALBA 177, Tamiment Library, New York University

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

In the afternoon of March 14 the front suddenly erupted again as Moors, proceeded by Fiat tanks, stormed the trenches south of the XVth Brigade, an episode recorded in brigade lore as “the Battle of Dead Mule Trench”.  That section was lightly held by skittish quintos (conscripts) of the La Passionaria Battalion, who panicked and fled.  The contagion spread to the next sector, occupied by the British Battalion… {the Brigade leadership was in a meeting with Copic in the rear and the labor battalion held the Moors} …. Within minutes Captain Jock Cunningham, the ferocious, bushy-browed commander of the British, came dashing up the hill shouting, “You bloody Yanks! Goddamn you — we won’t leave you in the lurch!”…Close behind came Fred Copeman…. Grabbing handfuls of Mills bombs, a mixed force of Americans and British stormed down the length of the trench, flushing out the Moors in fine style.  One man would toss a grenade into a blind corner of the trench zigzag, and the others would quail-shoot the Moors who tried to scramble out.  The enemy ran out of grenades in the nearly subterranean fighting and never caught on that their opponents were only a patched-up raiding party, and not a full battalion.  The counterattack ended when Cunningham found the trench blocked by a dead mule and scrambled up on the parapet in full view of the enemy, where he caught a machine-gun burst that somersaulted him into the trench, his chest and arms spurting blood like a pump.³

Copeman took Cunningham back for help and Lieutenant Wattis continued to pick off Moors who piled up in the no-man’s-land as they retreated.  The Moors continued to hold that section of trench for some time, but proceeded no further into the Brigade lines.  The Brigades Russian T-26 tanks overmatched the small Fiats and dispatched them.  The Russians, according to Eby, called the Fiats “patrol cars” and their two man crews the “riot police”.³

Eby describes an incident which was to become famous over the next year: Robert Raven to Philip Cooperman….

Lini Fuhr, Frank Ayres and Robert Raven

Nurse Lini Fuhr, Frank Ayres tending to Robert Raven in Hospital. Frederika Martin Photo  1:1:108:2, Tamiment Library, NYU.

Suddenly we ran into four soldiers who we thought were our own, but their helmets and clothes proved them to be fascists.  They tried to capture us.  We tore away and ran back thirty meters and grabbed some grenades.  My Canadian comrade opened the lever of his grenade and handed it to me, which he should not have done.  However, I crawled up towards the fascists under cover and was about to toss the grenade when there was a terrific concussion in front of me and I felt my face torn off.  Naturally, I dropped the grenade [which] exploded at my feet filling my legs with shrapnel.  My comrades must have retreated again and I kept crawling blindly, dragging my body through those trenches calling “Comrade, Comrade”.³

Robert Raven would recover.  He was, however, blinded in both eyes.  Raven would return to the US to lead appeals for support for the Internationals.

Jarama was not the only front of this war and, in two days, we will focus on the front at Guadalajara in early March 1937.

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¹  There is only one Newman or Neuman in the Lincolns in March.  Sol Newman became a member of the Regiment de Tren and it is curious that he would be at Murcia.  His papers are filed in Tamiment as Collection ALBA 081 and would need to be consulted to see if this is the correct Newman.   There is also, however, a Dr. Neumann who was Austrian and who said to have helped start the International Brigades in Spain.  Being a doctor, Murcia would be a logical place for him to be.

² Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., p 120.

³ Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid, pp 94-96.

11-12 Marzo “Murcia is an interesting town”

11-12 March

Robert Merriman’s 11th and 12th March diary pages. Recall that he is in hospital in Murcia and wrote this after March 25.

Merriman continues to be at Murcia for the rest of the month of March although now he is mobile and is able to walk around the town to see it.  We know that Murcia had considerable damage in 1936 at the beginning of the Civil War and by the end, the skyline was unrecognizable.   Many of the buildings that Merriman would have seen in his stroll around town have since been torn down, but one nice view from Google’s Panoramia™ viewer allows us to still go there today.

Murcia

Murcia today

Harry Pollitt

Harry Pollitt speaks to troops Source: Moscow Archive Photos, ALBA PHOTO 177, Tamiment Library, NYU

News from the front was not good.  Merriman heard that Stember had lost control at Jarama and the story of him waving his pistol around to get control must have been relayed to Merriman by Peter Kerrigan.  Merriman says the story got to the leadership of the CP in Valencia and it forced Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the British Communist Party to intervene.   Merriman says there was even discussion about combining the British and American battalions and Merriman did not object to that.  Since hundreds of Americans were pouring into Spain at the time, that combination of battalions did not take place.

Merriman mentions “Brent” from Canada.  As we progress in the diary, we are calling out authoritative texts on the subject of the Spanish Civil War.  Brent is not mentioned in three of those concerning the Canadians in the war: Victor Hoar (Victor Howard)¹, William Beeching², or Mark Zuehlke³.  We have Michael Petrou4 to thank who has published an authoritative list of the Canadians in Spain and has identified Jack Brent of Cobourg, Ontario who was born in 1912 and survived the war.  But his injury at Jarama seems to be unremarkable. Brent, it seems, returned to Scotland as a child.

Jack Brent

Jack Brent. Photo from the website of the Futuremuseum.co.uk

Thus, the fun begins in figuring out who Jack Brent was. He was George (Geordie) Dickie of Scotland and can be found in web accounts of his time in Spain.   Whithorn in Scotland  honored him in 2005.

Jack Brent was a leader of the International Brigades Memorial Trust and even had a book written about him.

Thanks to Kevin Buyers of Aberdeen, Scotland, for this quote by Larry Ryan of Toronto who was also in the Lincoln’s Number 2 Company about that morning on February 27, 1937:

” Almost before Company One is out of the trenches, we are up, on the run, dive into the trench, so shallow that one crouches to lay a rifle on the parapet. In the gathering darkness, we glimpse the comrades ahead, in waves they go up, down, up, run down ever ahead. It is but a pause before we follow. Out across the field, a few shells are bursting ahead of us, or are they grenades?  We are still too green to know…As we go over the top one of our tanks is hit, bursts into flames and is now a flaming torch at our backs, silhouetting us against it’s brilliance. The enemy has machine gun nests which sweep in a v-shaped crossfire. The blaze of the tank is fading and if you hug the earth they can’t see you. In an answer to the agonized cries of ‘first aid, first aid’ which pierced through the tortured night, the stretcher bearers flit through the gloom, picking up the wounded and as they bear them away, appearing momentarily like shadows, the machine guns spew laden death and the shadows crumple”

“Answering just such a call Jack {Brent} went to rescue a wounded comrade. As he bent down to pick him up a rapid burst of machine gun fire cut him down, immediately after he was shot, he was dazed and his legs paralysed.  He crawled first toward the enemy lines, but realizing his mistake he got back to his own lines in spite of enemy fire. He had been in Spain only a few days, and the action took place three days after his 25th birthday”.

Here is Geordie’s story in video.   Sam Wild’s daughter Delores is in Jack Brent’s lap on this book cover.

Geordie's_Story

Geordie’s Story by John Dickie. Jack Brent is holding Delores Wild, Sam Wild’s daughter.

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¹ Victor Hoar (Victor Howard) and Mac Reynolds, The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, Copp Clark Publishing, 1969

² William C. Beeching, Canadian Volunteers, Spain 1936-1939, University of Regina, 1989

³ Mark Zuehlke, The Gallant Cause, Wiley, 2007

4 Michael Petrou, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2008.

5 Stanley Harrison, Good to Be Alive: The Story of Jack Brent, Dumfries & Galloway Council, 1949.

9-10 Marzo “Jesuits”

9-10_Marzo

Continuing with Robert Merriman’s debrief from his time in the hospital. This was probably written around March 25, 1937

Merriman continues to discuss “Bennett” who we have identified as Thomas Edwin Browne Bennett, who left Spain in May 1937.  He must have had suspicions about Bennett since he was writing a report back to the Brigade leadership about having him sent home.

Since last year, the RGASPI archives have made many of the personnel files of the Brigadistas available online.   Merriman’s letter is in Bennett’s file:

Merriman_on_Bennett_1

Merriman on Bennett

Robert Merriman’s letter to George Brodsky on Thomas Bennett, RGASPI 545/6/862 pg 102-107.

The result was shown in an order by Wally Tapsell at Albacete:

Tapsell on Bennett

Order from Wally Tapsell to have Thomas Browne Bennett arrested  RGASPI 545/6/862 pg 108 

Merriman also notes that Celia Greenspan “knows what he is”.   Bennett reveals in another letter to Brodsky that he is US Army Military Intelligence and his escape by “cruiser” is promoted by a Mr. Davis in the US Consulate in Valencia.

Greenspan

Celia Greenspan clip from promotional materials on “Into the Fire” (Credit: Intothefirefilm.com)

Celia Greenspan was discussed on 15-16 January where Milly Bennett and Greenspan came to see Merriman.   An interesting quote on how Celia Greenspan became a nurse is from an article in the Villager.com:

“We just saw what had to be done and did it,” said one. For example, Celia Greenspan, who was a lab technician at the time, became a nurse “overnight.” “I had never done more than put a band-aid on a cut or took blood,” she said. But she became an adept nurse, overseeing many patients at one of the hospitals in Spain’s countryside.

Marion Greenspand

Notarized photograph of Marion Greenspan (George Marion) from a letter from Daily Worker associate editor Harry Gannes, naming Greenspan as the DW Correspondent in Spain. George Marion Papers ALBA 045, Tamiment Library, New York University Bobst Library.

Anders Greenspan gives some insight to George Marion (who he calls Marion Greenspan) and his wife Celia:

Greenspan’s case also illuminated the situation of couples who were separated as a result of the war. His wife Celia was serving at a hospital in Murcia, and while she wanted to go see her husband in Madrid, she wondered, “what kind of a comrade would I be if I walked out [?] If I had a transfer to a job in Madrid there would at least be some excuse. But here, with a dozen examples of couples broken up by the needs of the war, to leave in order to be with you would be to say that we and our personal happiness come first” (ALBA Col. 45). The war also gave Celia Greenspan a stronger sense of her relationship to the greater political cause that the volunteers were fighting for. As she wrote her husband in June 1937, “the war has changed me . . . all the books and all the lectures and all the unit meetings in the world . . . couldn’t have given me the feeling of personal responsibility to the movement, as being here, working and watching have done” ¹

Bob Thompson also came to visit Merriman and provided some companionship. Dave Springhall made it to Murcia from Columnar hospital and Merriman says that he looks much improved.  George Brodsky came through with some copies of the Daily Worker as reading material.

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¹ Anders Greenspan, Sacrifice and Commitment: American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil WarJournal of Arts and Humanities (JAH), Volume  2, No. 5,  pp 31- 32, June, 2013.