Category Archives: Jarama

The Battle of Jarama February-May 1937

19-20 Febrero Lincolns see their First Action and Merriman loses his diary

19-20 Febrero

Robert Merriman’s Diary for the evening of the 18th of February through the 19th. The diary was then lost for about a month.

The end of the post for February 17 and 18 discusses the first paragraph above.  The only addition information we have not discussed from that paragraph is “Harris out”.  James Harris, who was Merriman’s commander in training, had become increasingly unreliable.  Merriman had said on the 17th “Afraid of some officers at the last moment”.   We see why here.  Harris “missed the bus” when leaving Albacete, somehow got a ride to the front and arrived by the 18th.  Peter Carroll describes for us the sad episode with Harris:

At the end of the first day, Harris had to be sent to a hospital; Daduk “cracked up” and went to a rest home; and the brigade command bawled out Merriman for not keeping his men down.  Two days later, Harris returned, reclaimed his rank, and led the men on a bright, moonlit night across the Republican trenches into no-man’s’-land for night maneuvers.  Whatever the commander’s intentions, the march soon deteriorated into a rambling procession, interspersed with desultory fire from enemy lines and a raging quarrel between Harris and Merriman.  The latter apparently prevailed and brought the men back to their lines.  Harris, “still abnormal”, according to Merriman’s diary, went by ambulance the next day to a hospital, never to return to the battalion.¹

The stroll became derogatorily known as the “moonlight walk”.  It can have done nothing for the confidence the men had in their leadership. The concern Merriman had for Steve Daduk in training bore out and he was removed from the Front.  He would return in September to the United States to promote donations for the Lincoln Brigade.

Copic_Merriman

Vladomir Copic (left) and Bob Merriman (right) at Fuentes del Ebro in October 1938. Source: Harry Randall Photo Archive (ALBA Photo 11), Tamiment Library, NYU, Photo 11_0258.

The leadership changed again with George Nathan of the British removed and replaced by “Chopick” (also “Kopich”), who spelled his name Vladimir Copic.  Copic will remain the commander of the XVth Brigade until late Spring of 1938 and is integral to the story here.  His biography found in the Volunteer for Liberty² is found on this link.  (The Volunteer for Liberty was the Brigade newspaper published weekly from May 1937-October 1938 in Spain and later became the Volunteer newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades in the United States and a separate version was published in England after the war).  Copic had a dominating personality, believed in formal European command styles, and was a shameless self-promoter.  No one person has more photographs taken of him in the Spanish Civil War, as the Bosnian Serb Vlajko Begovic (Stepanovitch or Stepanovic) followed him around and served as his biographer/photographer.  Begovic was editor on Copic’s diary of the war which was published in 1971.

Hans Klaus

Photo of Hans Klaus (identified as Klaus Becker in many ALBA photos but believed to be Colonel Klaus or Claus), ALBA PHOTO 177-177038, Tamiment Library, NYU

Hans Klaus was named Chief of Staff for the XVth Brigade.  Merriman advanced Doug Seacord, the Commander of Company 1, to be his Adjutant at the Battalion Plaza Mayor (HQ), which was placed in the middle section of trenches at the front.

On the 20th of February, Merriman lost his diary and only found it in mid-March.  He gave the diary to someone to hold for him because action was picking up and only in March was it returned to him. It would have not been wise for a Brigadista to be caught with documentation that described Albacete and the Brigade formation.   The diary was probably left at Brigade Headquarters.

We will pick up the story of the Brigade in a few days after providing some background in the next position.

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¹ Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

² Volunteer for Liberty, Vol 1 Number 17  November 27, 1937.

17-18 Febrero “Long Live . . .”

17-18 February

Robert Merriman’s diary for February 17 and February 18

Merriman’s diary does not tell us much on these two days except that he was writing an epitaph for himself.  Much has been said about Merriman not being a member of the Communist Party but these lines in the diary would indicate that he is at least supportive at this point of the ideology of communism.  Perhaps he is telling us that he is a “real communist”.

By the 17th, the Americans had seen action at Jarama but Merriman does not describe it here.  Hundreds of books have been written about the American involvement in Jarama and Art Landis writes nearly two chapters of The American Lincoln Brigade on the action in February.¹   Each year,  the Asociacíon de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI) in Madrid holds a memorial for the Jarama battles and this year the Jarama march will be on Saturday, February 21.   AABI put up a Spanish History Channel documentary on Jarama which can be found here.   Additional video can be found here and here and here.   (A warning: some of this was broadcast on Falange TV).

From Landis¹, we can sketch what happened on these two days.  The actions of the 12th to 15th of February had resulted in the decimation of the French, German, and English Battalions.  Frank Ryan of the Irish caught the brigades in retreat along the Morata Road and with Jock Cunningham

Frank Ryan

Frank Ryan of the Irish Contingent in the International Brigade (Photo: 177_190100 of the Moscow Collection ALBA 177, Tamiment Library, New York University.

Cunningham

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

of the British, was able to rally the troops to follow him back to the Front.   Apparently, the only song known by all the troops was the Internationale and the troops sung out as they moved back to the front.  General Gal had exhorted the British to return saying there were no replacements.  Landis wonders if it was his enthusiasm which encouraged Ryan and Cunningham to return or the threat of court-martial.  In a prior battle south of Madrid, a French commander of the Brigades who did not follow orders was shot in December.  The encouragement to follow orders, even if they seemed unreachable, was a tangible threat to the commanders and would shortly be all too apparent to Robert Merriman.

The Americans who were in the trenches on the night of the 16th had already had a disaster of their own.  Two trucks moving to the front had misjudged the position of the International Brigade.  Carroll described the event²:

Riding in the first truck was a 25-year-old-graduate of Indiana University named Walter Grant…..  Grant rode in the darkness in the back of the lead truck toward the Jarama front.  Unfamiliar with the landscape, he probably did not realize that the driver had missed a left turn.  The driver of the second truck blindly followed his mistake.  Inside the third vehicle, an ambulance, rode Dr. William Pike, a volunteer with the American Medical Bureau, who noticed the road to the left.  He ordered the driver to stop, then directed the convoy on the proper course.  The Lincolns never again saw the missing trucks. But fascist documents indicate that the two trucks continued in the wrong direction until they came under enemy fire.  The first truck was shot off the road; the second crashed into it.  The survivors took refuge in a small gully, but they were easily overpowered.  Walter Grant and about twenty other Americans became the first of the Lincoln casualties.  Also lost were all the Battalion records.

Landis says that many on these trucks were on a list of prisoners as late as 25 December 1937.¹  Landis notes that none were repatriated so either they died at the scene, were executed after, or died in prison.  Accusations of traitorism on the part of the drivers was claimed by General Gal, but since the drivers were amongst the dead, it is likely to have been “fog of war”, a simple mistake.

On the 17th the Fascists attacked along a broad front.  In the south, on the 16th, the Irish O’Duffy Bandera, who were fighting for the Fascists, saw their first action at Ciempozuelos.  It was in this action that they were shot at by their own Spanish troops.  Fortunately, their positions were so far south, they did not come into contact with the International Brigade or it would have been the Irish, Americans and British shooting at the Irish.³  Instead in the attack on Ciempozuelos, the O’Duffy Bandera bogged down in the mud trying to cross the river and were generally ineffective.  Little more will be said about this group although they did see some action later in March. By June they were being repatriated back to Ireland, partly because Franco did not respect the ability of O’Duffy or his troops.

The Americans occupied positions on both sides of the paved road Camino de St. Martín de Vega.  The 2nd Company was the furthest left, the first company was nearest the road and the Cubans under Rodolfo de Armas was further to the north across this east-west road.  On the 16th, the Americans had their first battle casualty,  Charles Edwards, an observer, was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  Within an hour, Misak Chelibian was killed by artillery shrapnel.  But for raw recruits, the Lincolns had been placed well into the old positions of the Dimitrov Battalion.  Landis reports about 12 wounded in addition to the two deaths above over the next two days  and that the Lincolns had dug in deeply.

Another excellent summary of the Battle for Jarama can be found online on Robert Colodny’s “The Struggle for Madrid”.4

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¹ Art Landis, The American Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

² Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

³ Robert A. Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, ibid.

4 Robert Colodny, The Struggle for Madrid: The Central Epic of the Spanish Conflict, 1936-37, Transaction Publishers, 2009.

15-16 Febrero “Willing to die for my ideas”

15-16_Febrero

Robert Merriman’s diary upon arrival in Jarama, 15th and 16th of February 1937.

Commanders at Morata

Photograph of the XVth Brigade leadership at General Gal’s headquarters at Morata de Tejuña (Villa Fuentes de Venta), May 1937. L-R Allan Johnson, Vladimir Copic, unknown soldier, Harry Haywood, Marion Merriman, Col. Hans Klaus, Bob Merriman, and Joseph North. ALBA PHOTO 177-196126, Tamiment Library, NYU

From Albacete, the Lincolns boarded trucks and headed northwest at midnight to the front in the Jarama Valley.  Marion Merriman Wachtel noted that Stember had told Merriman that since James Harris did not show for the departure, Merriman was now in charge of the Lincoln Battalion.   While the battalion moved forward to the front, Merriman stopped in Morata de Tejuña (he calls it what looks to be Mortie or Mortia) a few kilometers behind the Jarama front where General Gal (Janos Galicz) and the Brigade staff were headquartered.

Merriman’s note “allowed them to fire” is described in many books on Jarama.  Each soldier was told to take five rounds and fire their weapons into a hillside.  For some, it was the first time they had ever felt the recoil of a rifle.  The Lincolns were welcomed with a bombing and strafing run from German Heinkel airplanes.  Edwin Rolfe wrote:

It was the first time the Americans had come under direct fire.  All of them stretched out full length, hugging the earth like experienced soldiers.  The single lapse of perfect discipline occurred when one of the younger volunteers turned over on his back, nervously aimed his rifle skyward and took a single shot at the planes.  The others remained silent…. It was the first real lesson, the first clear indication of the necessity for rapid troop dispersal under fire.  Before that, the men had tended to crowd together, seeking safety in close companionship.¹

Merriman says that the “Mexicans” (i.e. Russians flying the stub nosed Chato fighter aircraft) chased the Heinkels off.  Rolfe notes that the Chatos had two kills that day.¹ Merriman says that the men ran and showed early weakness.  The leaders of the Brigades wanted the men out of the trucks so they would not all be killed at once so the troops scattered to the two sides of the road.

Kit_Conway

“Kit” Conway, Commander of the British Battalion on February 12 at Jarama 2

Merriman would have known by the night of the 15th that things were difficult on the front.  On February 12th, the British had been flanked by Moorish troops and German Tanks.  Company commander  Kit Conway was killed as the British were caught in enfilading machine gun fire when they tried to advance to the bridge at St. Martín de la Vega.  Jim Prendergast of the British Battalion wrote:  “The Moors are sneaking up there on the left. Oh, where are our machine guns? … I reach the hill-crest where “Kit” is directing fire.  He is using a rifle himself and pausing every while to give instructions.  Suddenly, he shouts, his rifle spins out of his hand, and he falls back”.²  Kit Conway passed away overnight in the field hospital.

The British had to retreat from “Suicide Hill” and between the 12th and the 14th of February,  the Battalion strength went from 225 to 125.³  They were able, however, to keep machine gun fire on their old positions.  The situation was fluid over those two days with the French Edgar André Battalion, the German Thaelmann Battalion and the Polish Dombrowski’s also in the line.  The Thaelmanns lost their commander and commissar killed, the Edgar André Battalion lost all of its officers, the Dimitrov commander was killed, as were most of the officers of the 6th of February Battalion.³   Landis says that the XVth Brigade HQ Officers, the German Hans Klaus, the Croatian Vladimir Copic, the Bulgarian commissar Tabakoff, and the Hungarian Chapaiev and the English Captain Springhall, all had to go to the front to rally the troops to hold their positions.   The British had retreated back along the Morata road and were met by General Gal who told them that they had to go back.  There were no reinforcements and they had to continue to repulse the enemy offensive “at all costs”.  Gal threatened the British with court martial. The British went back into the lines.  The next day, Gal would go back to the British and apologize.

Moving up on the night of the 16th, the word reaches the other battalions that “The Yanks are coming”.   The Americans moved up into a reserve position in the secondary lines from “Suicide Hill”.  They dug in and would spend the next five days in those trenches.   Merriman relates the news that the Irish and Cuban units in the Lincolns became disoriented and gun fire hit friendly troops.  Interestingly, William Herrick relates:  “The third squad, with Kavorkian {Kevorkian} and Pete Shimrak, was with me.  Sudden shouts in Spanish, a couple of shots.  It was dark.  Joe’s voice {this is Joe Gordon}.  I ran over.  We ain’t got no passwords and these guys loom up.  What the hell are we supposed to do?  Two Spanish soldiers stood cursing, their fury unchained.  A Cuban comrade came over and straightened it out.”4   From this, it appears that Herrick’s unit may have been involved in the premature shooting and there is no reason to assume that Herrick embellished this unflattering story.

The final sentences in the diary need no interpretation.  Marion Merriman Wachtel wrote in her memoir “Bob knew that, come dawn, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion would be in the fight for its life”.5

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¹  Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, VALB, New York, NY, 1939.

² James Prendergast, “How ‘Kit’ Conway Died”,  The Book of the XVth International Brigade, ibid.

³ Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

4 William Herrick, Jumping the Line, ibid.

5 Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid.

11-12 Febrero The Lincolns Ready to Move and the British are Baptized by Fire

February 11-12, 1937

Robert Merriman’s Diary for February 11 and 12, 1937

On the 9th and 10th, Merriman gathered supplies and suggested that the Lincolns would shortly be moving “to the forest”.  On the 11th, he says “to move soon maybe tomorrow”.  The diary does not say that this move will be to the front, but we know that from history.

Problems with John Scott and Merriman continue.  They talked on the 9th, but Merriman says that he spoke extensively with Stember about whether it was inevitable that Scott would have to be replaced as Company 1 commander.  Scott must have threatened resignation “Scott demanded to see them — resign”.

Merriman relates that the Intendent (head of the Intendencia or supply depot) was preparing a dinner for 1300 men (approximately two battalions).   In the Book of the XVth Brigade³ says “The day before we left Villaneuva de la Jara for the front a dance was held for the Americans in another old building [the church in the diary] adjacent to our barracks”.   “Wolf” above is not an American Volunteer.  There is a Lou Wolf mentioned in April but no connection to him or the Intendencia is made.  There also was a doctor named Wolf Jungermann.  At this point it is still a bit of a mystery who this man is.

On the 12th, Merriman again says “Scott trouble” and he was in the field with the Lincolns in training when Andre Marty  visited the troops on the 12th.

Herrick made the statement “Adjutant Commander Merriman was partial to the infantry commander, Scott, two WASPs on a hot tin roof”…¹   Clearly, Herrick had this mostly wrong, if we are to trust Merriman’s diary.  There was no love lost between the two of them.  Herrick’s recollections were often second (or third) hand and here probably incorrect.   John Scott would lead his men into an attack on February 23 and be shot in the attack.  Scott would lie wounded in the field for most of a day and men risked their lives to get him back to the lines and to the safety of the Health Service.  Merriman’s “Scott trouble” would be a short one as Scott dies on February 23.

Art Landis² says that Merriman received orders on the 12th that changed their destination from Pozo Rubio to the front.  As we will see shortly, he has the dates wrong by about two days.  As of February 12, Merriman still is in training mode.

The Book of the Brigade becomes very active on 11 and 12 of February.  “On February 11, at sunrise, the rebels succeeded in capturing Pintoca bridge by a surprise attack” (this bridge is near Vaciamadrid in the map of 9-10 Feb’s post).  On the night of February 11, nearly 10,000 enemy troops starting moving in the Jarama sector.  The night of February 12, the enemy made their first assault on Pingarron Hill which was to be the high ground in the Battle for Jarama.  H. Galli (perhaps Humberto or Umberto Galliani) with the Franco-Belge Battalion³ says “February 11.  We assemble to march to the front.”  Laza Wovicky of the Dimitrov Battalion says “February 12. Noon.  We marched towards the olive trees, where the enemy were.  The enemy saw us and opened out a violent machine gun fire against us.  We spread into fighting formation.  We advanced about 300 yards without firing a single shot”.³  The notes of the British Battalion staff say

” Early in the morning of February 12, we started out in lorries from Chinchón.  We knew the front was near….. Captain Tom Wintringham commanded the Battalion.  George Aitken was Commissar.  We had no maps, little knowledge of what was happening.  We knew that the Fascists had advanced during the previous six days, that they had crossed the river Jarama, and that they were attempting to cut the Valencia-Madrid road.  We believed there was a front somewhere ahead; we were reserve troops, we understood.  Actually, as we discovered a few hours later, troops that had been in front of us had been brushed aside.  The Fascist break-through was in reality a big push”.³

Richard Baxell describes the events of February 12 in detail.  The British moved up from Chinchon where they had left the rail transport that brought them to the front on the 11th and moved by trucks up to the San Martin de la Vega road.  Just before the road was a cookhouse where the men dismounted and climbed the ridge to the west.  Reaching the top with little trouble, they were fanned out along the ridge when they were given orders to move west into the Jarama Valley and to attack the fascist positions on the heights on the western side.  The Fascists were well entrenched and had enfilading machine gun fire and artillery that made the British lives hell.   This counterattack, which began in the late morning, had bogged down on “Suicide Hill” to the south of the line and the “conical hill” to the north side, both of which had machine gun protection.   By 1400, the British had stalled and lacked machine gun support of their own by Harry Fry’s machine gun company who found that their ammunition belts were loaded with the wrong size ammunition and were jamming the guns.

The British began their retreat later in the afternoon back up onto the plateau where they were silhouetted against the skyline and fell in dozens.  The Moroccan Moors who were part of the Spanish Fascist Tercera attacked and “with astonishing speed over nearly two thousand meters of uphill ground”4.   The Moors were experienced troops and knew how to attack with limited cover and the inexperienced British were unable to stop their advance.  A slaughter ensued and Tom Wintringham had difficulty constraining the situation from becoming a rout.   General Gal ordered the British to hold at all costs.  Wintringham did not know that Bill Briskey and Kit Conway, his field commanders were dead.   The Moors retook Suicide Hill with its white farm house.

The situation turned late in the afternoon when Fred Coleman and Harry Fry were able to reload by hand the machine gun belts for Fry’s Company and machine gun fire from Fry’s five machine guns were ready.   As the Moors assaulted the eastern ridge of the valley, Fry’s company opened up and put nearly 1000 rounds into them in 3 minutes.  Over half of the Moors fell in the barrage and the assault stopped.

The 600 men in the British battalion were down to 200 effectives by the end of February 12.  Another 100 returned to the lines over the following days.   Of the men who had left the hill, stories abound of those who where walking out to the east and had to be stopped under threat from General Gal and George Aitken and Jock Cunningham.   Baxell says:

 Another group of men was found hiding in wine vaults in the farmhouse behind the lines by Fred Copeman and André Diamant, an anglicised Egyptian now in command of No. 1 Company.  Copeman and Diamond threatened to throw grenades into the vaults and almost one hundred men who had been hiding promptly revealed themselves.4

The British inexperience would similarly be reflected in Merriman’s troops in a few days.  There was no lack of courage amongst these men but the shock of war was something for which they were unprepared.

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¹ W. Herrick, Jumping the Line, ibid.

² Art Landis, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

³ Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid.

Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, Aurum Library, London, 2012. pp 149-150.

23-24 Mayo Lots to tell his diary (X-rated edition)

23-24 May

Robert Merriman’s Diary for the 23rd and 24th of May 1937

Merriman has time on the 23rd and 24th to write plenty about the machinations of the Brigade.  He even includes a page of notes from later in the diary.

The day starts routinely with Merriman going from Pozorubio (“Camp”) to Albacete to view instruction on the two new anti-tank guns from Russia.  He receives a lecture and something which looks like “lock” but whatever it is it took all morning.   Dr. Atal continues to be a concern to Merriman.  Atal was not a member of the Communist Party (he was a member of Nehru’s Congress Party in India later in life).  It is quite possible that Atal has raised concern by his comments made in early May and he is now on Merriman’s suspicion list.  He did, however, apparently pass his examination by the Doctor brought to camp to check him out and it looks to be a political concern with Atal at this point.  Merriman says Atal has “No discipline”.

After he and Bob Thompson had a check up at the doctor’s office, they ate and attended their first bullfight in the ring at Albacete.  Marion Merriman relates:

In the afternoon, the two Bobs [Merriman and Thompson], Joe Dallet [the Ivy-League-educated commissar], and I went to our first bullfight.  Through a friend we had seats in the circle of boxes high around the rim of the ring.  The place was packed, at least the shady side for even at four o’clock in the afternoon the sun blazed.  Music, a gay introduction to a dead romance.  The bull racing bewilderingly into the arena.  The cape holders (they do have a name for them but I can’t think of it) waving their cerise and yellow cloaks.  The bull rushing back and forth, not too excitedly and occasionally stopping to stare at the crowd.  The bandilleros, riskier business than any, waiting for the proper moment to throw the brightly colored darts into the bull.  The bull enraged trying to shake the darts out his back. Blood running in trickles down his sides.  More play from the cape wavers.  The fanfare.  The torero with his crimson cloak and sword.  Graceful taunting and tormenting of the bleeding bull.  The quick thrust sword to the hilt draws applause.  The bull weaves, lunges in a last frenzy, sinks to the ground in a slather of fury and weakness.  The man with the dagger at a safe moment plunging it into the bull’s brain.  The bull dragged ignominiously off on a chain by a team of horses.  And the next bull is prodded and dodged through the same routine.¹

Merriman says he did not enjoy the bullfight and most Americans were disgusted.

More of Lamotte’s battles with the Albacete leadership come out and Lamotte appears to be defending Americans being in an artillery unit.  The dispute goes deeper apparently as we see on the 25th.  In one of the more strange sentences in the diary, Merriman says that the “husband of the man” who ran the Intendencia arrived and there was “shock”.  We may never know this whole story but it does sound like an interesting one.  At this point, Lamotte ran the Intendencia so one might surmise that his sexual orientation became an issue at this point.

Merriman says that the guys he was with stayed in Room 35 at the hotel and we would need a hotel register to figure out who was staying in that room.  We will find where they slept on the 24th to 25th.   Merriman has enough to tell his diary that he used another notes page from the end of November:

November notes page

Additional notes page attached to May 24, 1937, from Merriman’s diary

177-196102 Aitken

Bert Williams (left), George Aitken (center) and Marty Hourihan (right), ALBA Photo 177-196012, Tamiment Library, NYU

The intense rivalries in the leadership of the Brigades are revealed here in their depressing detail.  Merriman says that George Aitken and Vladimir Copic made up a faction of the leadership who were opposed by Merriman/Haywood/Lawrence/Johnson (most of the Americans).  Merriman makes the critical comment that General Gall {sic, General Gal or Janós Galicz} was acting as a political commissar and General.  This is a conflict of interest since the “ombudsman” qualities of a commissar were designed to be a relief valve when conflicts with military line management developed.  Clearly, the Brigade leadership did not have a Brigade Commissar to provide that adjudication of the infighting. It is believed that the Brigade Commissar at this time was Jean Barthel.

The issue appears to be the unwillingness of Copic to ask for relief troops to take the IB’s off the line at Jarama until the Brigades were reorganized.  The Americans appear to be resisting bringing up the new Battalion until these issues are resolved.  Allan Johnson got in trouble for his actions on April 5 when he left the training base and went to lead at Jarama after a fascist attack on April 4.  Harry Haywood sent Johnson back to Albacete since Johnson will have “deserted to the front” if Copic had not ordered him to the front.   This event is not a major part of the story of Jarama but it was telling:

The loss of two hundred meters of trench on the 14th of March was rectified on April 5, when elements of the Dombrowski and Garibaldi battalions drove forward briefly on the Lincoln’s left to recapture these positions.  Captains Johnson and Hourihan directed the action, the Lincoln Battalion’s job begin specifically to supply cover fire while the other battalions went over; then the Americans themselves  left their entrenchments under British cover fire.  When the attack was launched, there was some hope of pushing on beyond the first objective– to straighten the line– but again it was launched too late in the day , and some units failed to appear at all for their role in the operation.  Captain Allan Johnson says that the Lincolns had not been slated to go over; that the plan had been for the 11th Thaelmann Brigade to attack through the Lincoln line in conjunction with the assault of the Garibaldis and Dombrowskis.  They were to have appeared on the scene at approximately 7:00 A.M.  Since they did not arrive at that hour, and since four hours later the Rebels were thoroughly alert to the developing attack all along the line– artillery and mortar shells were now ranging the Brigade parapets– he ordered the Lincoln’s First Company to go over, to threaten the enemy positions, and to prevent any possible counteraction prior to the arrival of the 11th.

Contrary to previous reports of this action, the Republican casualties were by no means light.  The Garabaldis, especially were hit hard.  Charles Nusser of the Lincolns states that some of the Garibaldis, either going over or returning to their lines, found themselves in front of the Lincoln trenches, got caught up in the Lincoln barbed wire, and were badly shot up.  Heavy fire met the assault of the Lincoln’s First Company, but relatively few were killed.  The entire Battalion actually sustained only twenty casualties for its part in the action of April 5.  Amongst those wounded, however, were Captain Johnson, Captain Hourihan, David Jones, the Battalion Commissar and a number of the leading cadres.²

Oliver Law

Oliver Law

Knowing this counterattack was occurring on the 5th, Johnson left Albacete and took action. Aitken and Copic did not support Johnson in this action.  Merriman states that as a result Copic jumped in and tried to reduce the Battalion staff by promoting Oliver Law up to Battalion Commander (in Marty Hourihan’s absence as he was sick).    Merriman’s attribution of the changes may be clarified by Art Landis who says that it was Allan Johnson who made the promotions of Walter Kolowski to the MG Company, Paul Burns to command Company 1 and Edward Flaherty to the command of 2nd Company. ²  Merriman, however, here says that a Slav was promoted Commander of the Machine Gun Company and Kolowski was demoted again by April 23.   This is probably the event where Johnson must have had his moves overruled and resented it.  “Words developed”.  If Johnson went at Copic, he clearly did not win the contest of wills.

The tempest developed into a political storm because when Robert Minor and James Ford visited lines at Jarama, Johnson was ignored and this aggravated the grievances.   Copic apparently charmed Ford and this further irritated the Americans when the VP Candidate of the Communist Party of America took the side of a Yugoslav commander of the Brigades over the wishes of the American communist leaders of the Brigades.  Continuing his list of grievances, Merriman pours out the fact that the Spanish are unhappy since they are also not getting the leave from the lines that they were accustomed to in the Spanish Army.   Merriman says that the front line troops are demoralized and the “Lincoln Battalion” had only 80 men remain in the lines … far fewer than the 600-800 that would be at strength.

As a side note here, Oliver Law would become a singular icon in the Lincoln Brigade as the first black officer in any war who rose to command a Battalion of mixed American soldiers.  Law was both used as a heroic icon back in the US to hold up the Brigades as fully integrated as well as dashed after the war by a number of writers who sought to denigrate Law’s competence.   We will not delve into this controversy since it is peripheral to Merriman’s diary and not discussed at all in Marion Merriman’s memoir about Robert.   It should be noted that these events on April 5 were central to Law’s rise in the ranks.   Anthony Sparrowhawk of England has a biography of Oliver Law in the works and we hope to see it published in the next year or so (private communication).

Merriman describes the reorganization of the Brigade around language. He says that Vidal, Platone and Dr. Telge have gone to Valencia to plead their case with the new Minister of War, Indalecio Prieto.  They wanted four “units” (for the lack of a better word in the transcription): one Slav, one German, one French and one English.  Each Brigade would have five battalions making 20 overall battalions in the Brigades.  The plan included three active Battalions at any one time with one in reserve and one completely at rest.  The plan doesn’t say how often the rotations would occur.  The group asked for pensions to be paid to veterans after the war and discretion to remove some soldiers totally out of the Brigades and back to their home countries.

Merriman continues that this would mean a reorganization along language lines.  The XVth Brigade would be entirely English speaking.  Vidal continued his presentation that reorganization needed to include Albacete, the Base.  It was said that Albacete was not safe (obviously so since saboteurs had destroyed the Brigade ammunition depot in recent days).  In the interview, which was planned for the morning of the 24th of April, Vidal invited Prieto to visit the Brigade lines, a visit which apparently never occurred.  In addition, a proposal was made to have “all language units”, presumably mixing everybody up.  This sounds like the “poison pill option” which you offer in a negotiation and one which you know will be rejected as unworkable.

Going back to the May 24 entry in the Diary, Merriman tells us he got up and took Joe Dallet with him for an 8 o’clock military parade at the Guarda Nacionale but that since the guard had been doubled on the ammunition dump, no one could fall in on parade (there is a slight error in the transcription here).   Merriman and Dallet returned to their quarters so they could do their ablutions, including taking a bath.  He picked up Marion and they went for breakfast and then he was off to inspect the guard at the Guarda Nacionale.  Clearly, the nerves were on edge about sabotage.

Merriman is still dealing with his broken wing and he gets another X-ray.  We will hear the outcome on the 25th.  Merriman says he joined “boys who are on the chase” which is clearly code for being out on the town to find women.  He goes to the Auto Park and hears Bob Minor speaking and they have entertainment.  In their travels, they get shot at and there were obviously fifth columnists amongst the locals near Albacete.

Merriman gets to the Ammo factory that was blown up and finds it substantially gone.  The French guard at the site had been drunk.  Merriman has to hunt down his officer to complain.

Merriman reveals that Bob Thompson “got lucky” with one of the nurses and Thompson and Dallet spent the night with her.

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¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid.,  p 146.

² Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., pp 161-162.