The Great Retreats. March 10th to April 2nd 1938

October 2012.

Anna Marti’s Paper on the Retreats is now online.

Please find below a link to Anna’s excellent paper on the Retreat of the Lincoln Washington battalion from Batea to Corbera


31st  March and 1st April 2012. 74th Anniversary Talk and Walk concerning the Retreat of the Lincoln Washington Battalion from Batea to Corbera, 31st March to 2nd April 1938.

  It is with great pleasure that the following commemoration will take place in Batea in the company of Dan Bessie, son of Alvah Bessie, who wrote the incredible book. “Men in Battle”. We will be meeting Lo Riu Associacio on Monday 2nd April to visit the cave so vividly desribed by Alvah Bessie. A full report on this weekend will be given later. In the meantime, please remember that 2103 will be the 75th anniversary of this tragic event and we hope to repeat the Walk then.

Twenty two photos of the Lincoln Battalion located, having been taken during the Aragon Retreats.

To our great surprise, Anna Marti Centellas, has identified and located photographs that have nothing to do with the Battle of the Ebro and the XV International Brigade, but in this case concerning American volunteers  in the Great Retreats from the Aragon Front in March 1938.

Therefore, in 2012, to commemorate the 74th anniversary of this tragic event, the Cultural Association La Castellana, with the collaboration of the Associatio Lo Riu and Recreational and Cultural Centre of San Isidro Batea has organized in Batea, various acts of commemoration to raise awareness of this event. . On Saturday, March 31 at 19:00 in the Recreational and Cultural Centre of San Isidro in Batea there will be a conference on the Lincoln Battalion Retreats in March 1938, by Anna Marti Centellas. The conference will deal with the American International Brigaders. From 18 March until 2 April 1938 in the area of Batea, a short summary of the Retreat and their route from Belchite to Batea and Corbera, where they were intercepted by Franco’s troops.

The next day, Sunday 1 April, a March has been organised from Batea to Corbera (30 km) making the same journey made by the Lincoln Battalion in 1938 during their Retreat. The Starting point will be at Venta de San Joan  at 9:00 in the morning. The route is divided into different stages, for those who only want a part of itinerary It will also have support vehicles.

It is necessary that participants bring approproiate shoes and clothing and have registered in advance sending an email with your personal data and the number of attendees at:

The price of entry is € 10 and includes lunch (picnic) and individual insurance. Anna Martin Centellas: live Viladecavalls (Barcelona) and works in the Information Centre at of the Natural Parc de Munt and Obac. The origin of this research was some”graffiti” that she found a friend in the village of Aguaviva (Teruel) where her family comes from. The “graffiti” was made by an American Brigade who died in this period of the Retreats. Thus the motivation for her extensive research on this subject.

“We have a house in the village of Massalió (Teruel) which we visit once a month and we are therefore close to the study area.” “I’ve done this quest with the assistance my partner. This work has been helped by such people as Alan Warren, Miquel Sunyer of Batea, who has helped us in that area and Vicente Julian from Corbera d’Ebre who has located many photos taken in the area and also has collected in Corbera many oral memories from neighbours concerning this period of the War”

For more information E mail

Localitzen 22 fotografies del batalló Lincoln a la retirada d’Aragó

La sorpresa ens la dona Anna Marti Centellas, amb la identificació i localització d’unes altres fotografies, res a veure amb la Batalla de l’Ebre; si amb la XV brigada internacional, però aquest cop a la retirada dels voluntaris americans del front d’Aragó. Aquest 2012 en el que es commemora 74 anys de l’efemèride,l’associació cultural La Castellania de Batea, amb la col·laboració de l’associació Lo Riu i del centre cultural i recreatiu Sant Isidre de Bateahan organitzat a aquesta localitat Terraltenca, diferents actes de difusió i commemoració, d’aquest fet. El dissabte dia 31 de Març a les 19:00 a la sala polivalent del centre cultural i recreatiu Sant Isidre de Batea, es farà una conferencia sobre el batalló Lincoln a la retirada de març de 1938, a càrrec d’Anna MartiCentellas. La conferencia tractarà dels brigadistes internacionals americans. Del dia 18 de març fins el 2 d’abril de 1938; un petit resum de la retirada i del recorregut que van fer de Belchite fins a Batea i Corbera, on van ser interceptats per les tropes franquistes. El dia següent, el diumenge 1 d’abril s’ha organitzat una caminada de Batea fins a Corbera (uns 30 km) fent el mateix recorregut que van fer els del batalló Lincoln  el 1938 a la retirada del front d’aragó. El lloc de sortida serà la Venta de Sant Juan (Batea) a les 9:00 del mati. El recorregut s’ha dividit en diferents etapes, per aquells que nomes vulguin fer una part d’itinerari contarem també amb vehicles de suport . Es necessari que els participants dugin calçat i roba adequada i s’hagin inscrit prèviament enviant un correu electrònic, amb les seves dades personals i el nombre de assistents, a l’adreça: El preu de d’inscripció es de 10 € i inclou el dinar (tipus picnic) i l’assegurança individual.   Anna Martí Centellas: viu a Viladecavalls (Barcelona) i treballa en un centre d’informació del parc natural de Sant Llorenç del Munt i l’Obac. L’origen d’aquesta recerca, ve d’un “grafiti” que va trobar un amic seu al poble d’Aguaviva (Terol) d’on és la seva família. El “grafiti” era d’un brigadista americà que precisament va morir durant els dies de la recerca. D’aquí la seva motivació personal en el tema. “Tenim una casa al poble de Massalió (Terol) on hi anem un cop al mes i tenim molt a prop la zona d’estudi.” “He fet aquesta recerca per afició juntament amb la meva parella.  En aquest treball hi ha col·laborat més gent a part de l’Alan Warren. El Miquel Sunyer, de Batea, que ens ha ajudat en aquella zona i el Vicenç Julià de Corbera d’Ebre que ha localitzat totes les fotos fetes a la zona de Corbera i també ha recollit totes les memòries orals dels veïns sobre el tema” Més informació a E mail


IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ROBERT MERRIMAN.  THE GREAT RETREATS, 31st March to 2nd April 1938, BATEA TO CORBERA.  31st March and 1st April 2012.

Robert Merriman outside the XV Brigade Estado Mayo, Batea. March 17th to 26th 1938.

The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; ALBA Photo 011-0265.Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY10012, New York University Libraries

We are pleased toannounce a weekend in the company of Dan Bessie,  the son of Alvah Bessie, author of “Men in Battle”, to discuss and explore the horrific three days when the Lincoln Washington battalion was destroyed whilst trying to escape from encirclement between March 31st to April 2nd 1938. The accepted history of the disappearance of Robert Merriman has been often told, and over the past year a group of Catalan, British and American historians have been examining the  various histories, memoirs and local oral memories to try and understand the events of these days. With this in mind, we are inviting people to visit the sites where the Retreat took place between Batea and Corbera and to attend a bilingual conference in the Batea Theatre (“Then later we marched into Batea and took over a theatre,  built a fire on its concrete floor, a fire that filled the whole place with smoke, and tried to dry out.” Alvah Bessie,  Men in Battle, p. 90)  at  6.30pm on Saturday 31st March. Before the talk a tour of the various positions occupied by the XV Brigade, including the “Linea Maginot Catalana” will be made on the Saturday afternoon. The original plan was to make the walk during the night of Sunday 1st April, but because of local interest we will make the walk during the day starting at 0900 on Sunday 1st April from “the great lime-washed stone house that was being used as the Brigade first-aid post” (Bessie, Men in Battle, p109).  just north of Batea, following as closely as possible the route of the Retreat to above Gandesa, where the battalion was attacked by Fascist cavalry, and then to the crossing west of Corbera where Merriman and Doran disappeared. Other sites in the deserted village of Corbera connected with the Lincoln Washington battalion and Robert Merriman will also be visited and their significance explained. The walk will be a total of 30 kilometres with various locations to pick up those who are tired. A certain level of fitness will be required for this walk over the whole of Sunday, but it will be worthwhile with a lot of local participation.

The same building today

The plan for this weekend is to allow input from both local and international Archives and experts  to try and  understand better these confused days with the proposal to repeat the same walk on the 75th anniversary over the same dates in 2013.

A Report on the Commemoration of the Retreat of the Lincoln Washington Battalion from Batea to Corbera, March 31st to April 2nd.(written 7th April 2012)

March 31st 2012. Gary Barko with Jeanne and Dan Bessie at the XV  Brigade Estado Mayor west of Batea

Major Robert Merriman outside the same building. .16th to 26th March 1938.

On the seventy fourth anniversary of this tragic event over the weekend of March 31st and April 1st 2012, a group of interested individuals successfully organised a Talk and a Walk in the approximate footsteps of the survivors of the shattered Lincoln Washington Battalion from Batea to Corbera. The weekend included Dan Bessie, son of Alvah Bessie, whose book “Men in Battle” was partly responsible for the identification of many places now recognised on the route of the Retreat.

(l to r) Anna Marti, Miquel Sunyer, Alan Warren & Vincens Julia at the start of the Talk

After a brief introduction by Miquel Sunyer, President of the Batea Cultural Associasio La Castellania, the Talk on Saturday evening was given by Anna Marti, who, with her partner Enric Comas, has spent the past three years fieldwalking the area and studying the many and confusing memoirs of the Brigaders aswell as correlating oral memories from local people with locals conducted by Vincens Julia from Corbera  and other interested historians. The result was a great success. Over ninety people from the area, the United States and the United Kingdom attended Anna Marti’s excellent talk with the locations of many photos from the Tamiment Collection shown and compared. After a brief but detailed account of the run up to the period in question from Belchite on March 9th 1038, this was followed by a detailed description of the horrific events in the area. The final part of the talk showed photos of some of those who were killed in the Retreat followed by a listing of the 183 Americans who still lie here in unmarked graves in the Catalan soil. The audience sat in stunned silence as the young, smiling faces appeared with their names and followed by the long and painful list of names and places of origin. The horror and hopelessness of their final hours is highlighted by the memoirs of Valencian Fausto Vilar who served in the Lincoln Washington Battalion and who was captured on April 3rd. (See the end of this report for that passage).

Anna Marti giving the Talk

After the Talk Dan Bessie answered questions from the audience about his father and finally asked the audience how many of their families had been involved in the War. To our amazement around seventy people held up their hands.

Dan Bessie answering questions from the floor with Rafael kindly translating. Thanks,  Rafael!

Here is a link to an article published about the event on Sunday 1st April in the local Diari Ebre.

On Sunday 1st April at 0900 (We were late! Sorry! Blame Gary Barko!)  the group of 43 walkers started the walk from Venta de Sant Joan under the guidance of Anna Marti supported by four four wheel drive vehicles. The thirty kilometre walk was well organised and those who became tired were able to follow the group and get on and off as they felt. To set the scene, the Lincoln Washington Battalion had been recuperating just west of Batea after their arrival in the area on March 18th, before being moved to north of Corbera on March 26th..

Whilst at Corbera Fausto Vilar writes:

I spend that day and that night with Fernàndez; then comes Tuesday, 29th March. They have promised us a party today, with the Brigade’s high command taking part. Lunch is extraordinary, the kind of fare we were having every day up until the business in Belchite, because ever since then our food has deteriorated in quantity and quality – meals rustled up in receptacles that formerly held gasoline, which means that the food tastes of petrol every day, but we take it because, out here in the pine woods, there is nothing else on offer. So at last we tuck in with real gusto, the way we used to in what we now refer to as the good old days. That afternoon sees the arrival of some Catalan girls who dance and sing Catalan tunes and with whom, once the performance is over, we get to fraternise a little. At the same time the Brigade’s high command – Copic, Merriman, Dave Doran, Keller and Milton Wolff as well as other officers and commissars in their escort but unfamiliar to us show up in the pine forests on the hillsides where we are encamped. Copic, as Brigade commander, now back in his a post after his recent absence, during which the forceful Merriman stood in for him, is the first to address us, with a speech designed to boost the Battalion’s morale. In English, with an interpreter translating for our benefit, he tells us that these International Brigades of ours must remain what they have been thus far, because, whereas we have had to retreat in the face of the enemy, he goes on, there is to be no repetition of this, because, before moving up to the front, we will know, from now on, what forces we have to our right and which to our left , because the Division is now to operate as a unit, as General Walter has promised him, in contrast with our past experience where our flanks were protected by forces of the line who took to their heels at the first cannon roar and left us exposed, making it easy for Franco’s forces to trap us in his pincers, from which we extricated ourselves only at the price of many of our comrades’ lives, comrades who went to their deaths with sacrifice and honour, so that the rest of us might be spared. The American greenhorns applaud Copic’s harangue, but we, the remaining veterans know that unfortunately this will prove to be, as Shakespeare has it, merely words to send us once more unto the breach. After Copic, Merriman steps forward to speak. He opens by saying, through Litwin, that his words are intended to reach out to the very hearts of the Spaniards who belong to the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, since they are a sizable fragment of the Battalion and, as Spaniards, if this war is lost, they will be the ones who will have to endure at first hand the crushing burden of defeat. And this ‘ordinary Joe’, Merriman, goes on to talk to us of callous Moors, depraved legionaries and the other foreigners who make up Franco’s troops who will have no compunction, if we give them the opportunity, about violating our wives and sweethearts and will, unless we stop them, also crush us under their jackboots and enslave the Spanish people with the sectarianism of Falangists, German Hitlerites and Italian Fascists. In spite of ourselves, we are touched by Merriman’s worried words because, looking beyond his slick, sentimental demagogy, we chastened veterans have a feeling that no one, not even Merriman himself, believes in the prospect of victory any more, when our high command can speak in such terms through the mouth of the most prestigious of our commanders. Merriman finishes speaking and then the Catalan musicians struck up the ‘Internationale’. We all hear it out while standing erect with our right fist clutched to our hearts. Then they distribute caramels and chocolates, as well as the odd wristwatch for the longest serving veterans. Merriman, mingling with us, tells us that inside the Brigade a man can go as far as he wants. For a second it occurs to me that Merriman here is thinking about Napoleon and plugging away at his attempts to raise our morale, but one hulking American veteran who has been with the Brigade ever since Jarama tells him that he, for one, has had no promotion. Merriman gives this hulk some sort of answer I do not understand in English and there ensues a banter between them that concludes with general guffaws from the Americans in response to Merriman’s remarks. The celebrations are over: some of the veterans carry on with their drinking and singing: most of us, though, hold our peace. Later we have dinner and bed down for the night, slipping gradually into sleepy release. At two in the morning, they rouse us. We are served with the usual hot coffee, everyone is issued with rifle cartridges and crates of ammunition belts for the machine-guns, as well as hand grenades and then they take us down to the highway. As ever, we march in two single lines, one of each side of the road. The night is dark and smoking is not allowed. For a moment or so, I can see in my mind’s eye the upbeat marching songs of the likable Lieutenant Titus who perished in the taking of Monte Pedregoso in Segura de Baños.

By April 1st the Battalion had advanced from Corbera to just north of Batea and Venta de Sant Joan.

Venta de Sant Joan. “the great lime washed stone house.”

Venta de Sant Joan is actually “the great lime washed stone house” that Alvah Bessie describes in “Men in Battle”. It is now a beautiful casa rural and we were made very welcome by the owners, Jorge and Clotilde. We plan to return next year, and for those who wish, to sleep there the night before the March begins.

Jorge, Oriol Porta, (director of “Hollywood contra  Franco/A War in Hollywood”. See, Jeanne  Bessie, Dan Bessie and Clotilde outside the entrance to Venta de Sant Joan

Alvah Bessie writes:

Later that afternoon of the endless afternoon we saw Manuel coming down the valley fast, carrying something in his hand, and when he got to the intersection of the valley he waved. We could spot the other comrades coming down off the nearby hills, and we unbent our rigid limbs and started sliding down. Manuel was waiting patiently for us and when we reached him he put his hand into the newspaper he was carrying and gave a handful of avellanos to each of us. We started to crack the nuts between our teeth. “Come,” he said, “we are going.” And we fell in behind him, moving off   down the valley till we came to a dirt road.  We kept looking to the right, and left, behind; there was a feeling of suspense; a feeling that something was going to happen any minute. Further ahead, down the road, we could see a large body of men, standing, sitting, lying near the great lime-washed stone house that was being used as the Brigade first aid post. No one said anything; no one asked any questions, but we knew we we, moving fast. Tabb was seated beside the road, the light Russian machine gun at his side. His funny face was unshaved, his hands were dirty; he said nothing. But the place was loud with commands; small groups of men moving forward and back, threading their way between the tired men, seeking their units. “Company One, this way!” “Scouts and machine guns up ahead.” “Cola! Cola!” the tired men joked, leaning on their rifles. “Who ever saw the Fifteenth Brigade do anything right?” someone said. I went to the head of the disorganised column, found Luke (Hinman) and Hal sitting beside the road, sat down beside them. I looked at the tiny butt in Luke’s long, stained fingers, and he handed it to me. Hal was staring at his feet. Milt Wolff was down the road, conferring with Merriman and Doran of the Brigade, looking twice as tall as normal in his long black cape, stained with red dirt. They were looking at a map. He turned to the men, raised his hand and said, “Batallon! A formár!”  It was growing dark. He waved his arm, said “Let’s go,” and the men who had been sitting, lying beside the road, picked themselves and their equipment up and shuffled along in the dust of the eroded path, moving downhill. The head of the column halted and men bumped each other. Angry voices said, “Watch that bayonet; pick up your feet; get the lead out of your ass.” And the column moved on again, stumbling down the hill toward the main road.

Both the young and the old took part in this thirty kilometre walk……

Following the Route markers recently made by Anna and Enric 

The picnic was very well received….

 Fausto Vilar recounts:

After mid-day, with nothing to eat beyond the remnants of the previous evening’s rations, we receive orders to pull out. Gradually we are making our way back through the little hills where we are positioned, bringing, one at a time, the Maxims, detached from their tow wheels. The Battalion regroups in the lee of the hills and it occurs to me that what we have so feared has come to pass. The same old story – no trace of Copic or of Walter; there is no one guarding our right or left flanks. Empty talk; Shakespeare really had it taped and this is confirmation – and how! – of the fears we had had when we were listening to Copic. The Battalion forms up in a column four men deep and we are just leaving the little valley where our regrouping has taken place when, all of a sudden, there is an explosion so forceful and loud as to make us all, as of one mind, throw ourselves face down in the dirt. Our nerves are so on edge that we are all fearing the worst. Luckily, nothing out of the ordinary has happened, for the word is passed along that the explosion we heard was our powder store going up, to deny it to the enemy as we withdraw. Meaning, in short, that we have no ammunition left beyond what we have on our persons. I am carrying a rifle plus bayonet, fifteen or twenty bullets in my greatcoat pockets and two attack grenades. We have five belts of ammunition for each of our Maxims. We begin a cautious withdrawal under cover of the fall of evening a while back and soon we are swallowed by the darkness………….  We are plodding on through the night, or rather, carrying on with our retreat, when, on the approach to Batea our forward patrols stumble upon an encampment of Franco’s troops who have overtaken us. Our fears of being surrounded have been borne out. Thanks to the fact that the enemy was sleeping and to the fact that initially we come under fire from his sentries only, we escape disaster that night. Be that as it may, the fire from Franco’s troops through the darkness is heavy enough to oblige me, being on point duty, to dive for cover behind an embankment. As I fall, the triangular bayonet fixed to my rifle is plunged into the dirt for I somersault through the darkness and, just before it sticks in the earth, my bayonet catches the back of my greatcoat, leaving a great slash in the back of it. I scramble to my feet and spot that all of our men are behind the embankment. There are voices saying in Spanish; Por aquí! Por aquí!  and, in English, This way! This way! This is from our patrols and gradually we edge away from the Francoist camp and its gunfire. After that shock, doubly shocking because we were not expecting to run into anyone in our rear in the darkness, we resume our march, nerves on edge and wary of further brushes with enemy troops, until sunrise finds us between Corbera and Gandesa. We halt and the whole battalion halts, forming up again as a column four abreast, in orderly fashion, as if we are on our way to take part in a military parade. I tell Fernàndez that I am off in search of information and I make for the head of the Battalion’s column formation. With a voice trembling with emotion, Merriman tells us all that, sad to say, the enemy has us surrounded, but that the Lincolns will break out of the noose, to which end we are to make a frontal assault on a single point, and that, as ever, he, Merriman will lead the Lincolns into this attack. We are positioned on a hill and the Battalion starts on its way; as they pass by where Cody, Merriman, the Commissar (Doran) and I are, some of the American newcomers who had argued with me and dared to label the survivors of Belchite and Caspe as cowards, look me straight in the face as they parade past and nod their heads as if accepting now what only a few days ago they had childishly refused like the big Yankee kids they were to accept – that I was in the right. The look on their faces all but says:  Boy, were you ever right!  

The Retreat had begun.

A Group photo of the “surviving” marchers taken above Gandesa. This was where the survivors of the Lincoln Washington Battalion held out over Saturday April 2nd after trying to enter Gandesa but being slaughtered by Italian cavalry and returning to this hill..

I am not going to recount here from the many different and confusing sources that are available. There are far too many. But here is one by  Swiss stretcher bearer Konrad Schmidt describing the hill above Gandesa:

I recognized at dawn  that I had lost my comrades and found myself in the middle of American and Canadian volunteers. We marched in the direction of Gandesa, because we thought that Gandesa was still free from the enemy. But we miscalculated because as we arrived at a high plateau we saw over the valley and looked at fascist tanks driving through Gandesa. The ring around us was closed. The volunteers with me were members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. The commander of the battalion, an American university professor, was also there. He gave us an order to leave the plateau into the canyon. But as we stepped into the canyon we came into a cross fire of fascist machine guns. It was awful what devastation amongst us was caused by this fire. The Americans and the Canadians, all tall and strong guys, fell galore. In a few minutes hills arose of dead bodies. I survived thanks to throwing myself immediately on the ground. I noticed the commander of the battalion running with his adjutant towards a small hut. The bullet holes showed how the fascists followed them to try to cut them down. However the fascists didn’t succeed and the commander reached the hut. Later on I heard he was captured in this hut.

However, what is certain is that many Americans were captured and immediately shot out of hand. The fear, hunger, and confusion is obvious from the many accounts. The disappearance of Merriman is a case in point. Oral and written memory points to the possibility of him having been captured whilst trying to cross the Gandesa to Corbera road as the remains of the battalion tried to escape, and was executed the following morning with another six Brigaders. This cannot be proved however, but is a distinct possibility. According to locals they were buried below the olive trees where they were shot in “two hand width’s depth of soil”. Perhaps we will never know….

Finally, Fausto Vilar writes about his capture on April 3rd ending with a horrific tale:

Now there is upwards of one hundred of us prisoners, making up a straggling line. Some Francoist soldiers are frisking the captives one by one. When my turn comes to be searched, the soldier carrying it out spots my silver wristwatch which belonged to my father and which my mother had insisted that I use ever since I turned 18. His eyes light up and he asks me: Will you make me a present of it? Who could say no? I agree and am left watchless. As for my wallet containing photos of Mary and my mother, he sees it, says nothing and returns the wallet to me. Once they have finished searching us all, a Francoist officer, the Valencian, Captain Puig de Carcer, orders: All Spaniards, one step to the front! The entire line, as one man, takes a step forward, Americans included. Then Captain Puig de Carcer barks: Americans, one step to the front! Nobody in the line budges. In actual fact, had Captain Puig de Carcer, the Spanish officer, used physiognomy and height as his criteria, he could easily have picked them out with scarcely an error. But it is worth noting that even though they are in the front lines using their cavalry to force pockets of enemy troops into surrender, the men charged with such identification tasks must be acting under very strict instructions, because there is no reaction to this failure to separate the foreigners from the Spaniards. Starting at one end of the line, Captain Puig de Carcer begins to question us one by one, making his selection and picking out of the line anyone whom he identifies as a foreigner. In so doing, his opening question goes something like this: Como te llamas? Which is to say: What is your name? This alone induces lots of them to give themselves away the moment they open their mouth and utter a Spanish name in an atrocious foreign accent. Should the person being questioned reply in good Spanish, but Captain Puig de Carcer reckon him to be a foreigner anyway, there is a follow-up question: Where are you live? As this is greeted with a display of not understanding, the prisoner is then asked instead: Donde vives? Donde naciste? Cual es el pueblo mas importante de la provincia donde has nacido? After all these questions, which those being questioned understand, in that they have a smattering of Spanish, they virtually all end up giving themselves away, because, for all that they know a little Spanish, their knowledge of Spain’s geography is not good enough to rescue them and so they fall into the snares of this simple but effective interrogation technique.…….. .

Questioning over and after two lines have been formed – one of foreigners, the other of Spaniards – the foreign Brigaders are marshalled and taken away. But those of us still left face subtler questioning until eventually they seem to be persuaded that all of us who are left are Spaniards. Later, albeit at some remove, there is the ratatat of machine-guns. We fear and reckon with some sadness that they must have liquidated all of the Internationals that were taken away earlier, although we cannot say so, because from time to time we can still hear scattered shots. Not that that is the end of it. The eternal Judas, a lad from Buñol (Valencia), whom I never liked, either to show himself in a good light or because he himself is a fascist – God alone knows for sure – wastes no time in denouncing two out of the five or six American Brigaders whom I know to be still in our line posing as Spaniards, having weathered the questioning. The squalour of the actions of the fellow from Buñol makes my stomach heave but, by way of a counter-point to the actions of this Buñolense, I am even more disturbed by the conduct of one of the Americans betrayed who throws himself to the ground, prostrate at the feet of the Francoist officer, to plead for mercy. I am intensely revolted and disgusted to see a Spaniard – a Valencian, at that – sink to such depths and by the American Brigader’s lack of integrity in offering us the depressing spectacle of the vanquished anxiously pleading with the victor for mercy. I begin to nurse a resentment and repugnance towards them all. Just then, any belief in human kindness has deserted me. It strikes me that evil is in the ascendancy and that it might have been better had I been cut down by the machine-guns this morning.  

The end of the March at the sunken road on the Gandesa to Corbera road where the thirty odd survivors of the Lincoln Washington Battalion under Milton Wolff attempted at midnight on April 2nd to cross, with disasterous results.

By six o’clock in the afternoon the  “survivors” of the walk reached the road where supposedly Merriman and Doran disappeared. Tired but happy, I gave a vote of thanks to Anna Marti and Enric Comas aswell as to Miquel Sunyer and Pere Ram of the Cultural Association La Castellania in Batea ( and  Joan and Alex Sambro of Associacio Lo Riu from La Fatarella ( Also the unnamed but vitally important drivers of the four wheel drives who accompanied us. I finally asked the group if they would wish to repeat the event on the 75th anniversary to which the answer was a resounding “Yes!” So if you would like to take part in this same event next year keep your diaries open for March 30th and 31st  when the event will be repeated with a possible visit for British participants to Calaceite on the morning of March 30th. If Americans wish to join us I may offer a four day tour of the Great Retreats from Belchite to Batea for a small group. Contact me on if you are interested.

Corbera in the background at the end of the March

Thank you very much to Anna and Enric for their hard work in making this event a reality. And thank you to everyone who also assisted and who took part in this important event. Next year will be even more significant to remember the Americans (and British) involved in this horrific few days as close as possible to the 75th anniversary.

Anna Marti, Dan Bessie and Enric Comas at the end of the March.

(It looks like Anna and Enric have carried Dan to the end, but he made it by himself!).

Jeanne Bessie, Miquel Sunyer, President of La Castellania Cultural Associacio of Batea and Dan.

Finally many thanks for Dan Bessie for attending this event. We hope to see him and his wife  and other Americans next year.  


30th January 2012


Can anyone identify this strange quote?

Last week a Catalan historian, Roberto Bondia,  sent me photos of a 42cm bayonet and scabbard from close to where the Lincoln Washington battalion advanced north of Batea on March 31st 1938.  We are curious to know the inscription on one side of the scabbard  as to what it is taken from, and so I am putting the photos of the inscription in case anyone can help us identify the passage. The bayonet would have fitted a Mauser rifle which were used by either side at the time. It was made by the Infanteria Fabrica de Toledo and is 42 cms long (almost 16″). The inscription reads on one side:


and on the other side. “JALYMAR 16″”

Any help on the source of the quote would be gratefully appreciated. We think that the quote is of American origin,  as it was discovered in the location where the Lincoln washington battalion was fighting between March 31st and 1st April 1938. Please write to me at Thanks!



One of our plans was to follow the Retreat of the XV Brigade from Belchite to Batea between 10th and 21st March 1938 by using an undated report by Edward Cecil Smith, the Mackenzie Papineau commander. The report was probably written as he recovered in Valls hospital in April 1938 and  is a valuable document. The transcription as cited in Canadian Volunteers in Spain 1936-1939 by William C. Beeching,University of Regina, 1989, has some typos (eg. The Albacete road should be the Albalate road!)  and Cecil Smith’s account of the fighting at Cemetery Hill to the south east of Caspe confuses the fighting on Reservoir Hill to the north west of the town (though he admits errors). But when one travels the distances involved one gains the greatest respect for these men during this uncertain and frightening time.

When given the order to move Battalion 60 (Mackenzie Papineau) to Letux from Hijar, about March 6th, I was informed that a strong enemy push was expected to develop in the next few days, coming from the west and attempting to come between Albaton and Belchite, the swinging south.  Brigade 95 (Marineros) was to counter-attack, catching the fascist column in the right flank as it moved east, and the XV Brigade was to be held in reserve in the towns of Letux, Belchite and Lecera.  The enemy attack began on the morning of March 9th in the vicinity of Fuendetodos. By about ten am. Our patrol on the Letux-Fuendetodos road reported bodies of men retreating towards Letux. Most of these were from Brigade 153. early in the afternoon troops were retreating along the Azuara-Letux road and were stopped by our patrols about 2 kilometres from the latter town. These were from the 24th Division, 153 and 95 Brigades, and from attached artillery units.  In almost all cases the highest ranking officers with the men were sargentos. The exception was an artillery unit which marched with two lieutenants, a quartermaster and one 2nd lieutenant-subaltern, carrying with them the breech blocks of their guns.  Under the  reported circumstances, I was called to Brigade headquarters in the afternoon and ordered to move the battalion north of Azuara.  First, orders were to the effect that our forces from the Brigade at Azuara would consist of Battalions 59 (Spanish) and 60, one anti-tank gun and a company of engineers, with attached transmission services, etc.  Verbal operation orders were to the effect that the enemy had taken large sections of first and second line trenches and had isolated about two battalions of the 95 Brigade on two positions each side of the Fuendetodos-Azuara road; that tanks had been seen within three kilometres of Azuara, to the rear of the above mentioned heights and that upward of 100 camions had been observed moving down the highway towards Azuara and about six kilometres distant  Battalions 59 and 60 were to move north from Azuara in the darkness, contact the enemy, counterattack him and drive him back and form a line connecting the two heights held by the 95th Brigade.  In the meantime, one company of our battalion (Company One) had been placed in position in unoccupied trenches about two kilometres north-west of Letux, when it became obvious to us that no organised line existed. Between Letux and the rapidly advancing enemy. Their position (approximately) was later taken up by the Brigade machine-gun company, although this company took position a little behind those previously held by Company One.  One section of Company Three had also been sent for the afternoon to discover what the situation was to the west of Azuara. When recalled, they reported that out troops still held lines around Herrera, although the line to the north of that seemed to have folded up.  Later, orders from Brigade were to the effect that battalion 60 would advance north from Azuara and build a line from two to three kilometres from the town, while battalion 59 occupied a position south west of the town on the other side of the river.  Just as positions were being taken up, the Battalion commander was called to headquarters of Brigade 95, where Major Merriman informed him that the orders had come through to the effect that Battalion 59, the anti-tank gun and the engineers were ordered to move at once to Belchite and that undoubtedly orders to move Battalion 60 would come through soon.  Meanwhile runners were sent to call in Company One, which was about six kilometres to our right and the battalion was ordered, on instructions from Major Merriman, to rest until telephonic orders came from the Brigade.  At about four am. Captain Kamy called from Brigade to say that the expected orders had not come and that the positions should be taken up.  So positions were chosen and the battalion began to dig in about five am. In a semi circle about five kilometres from town.  No further communications were possible with Brigade as early in the morning the telephone central of Division moved our without warning our transmissionists.  Before seven am. The enemy avions made their appearance and within a half hour artillery fire was opened on our positions and on those of the remaining forces on our right flank. A company or so of the 95 Brigade also still held an advanced position on a hill near the road 200 metres ahead of the line.  The enemy attack lasted without slackening. In fact it intensified almost continuously until nightfall, after seven pm.  All day forces were leaving the line to our right-no enlace (runner) was ever made to our left, although we sent out at least three kilometres in that direction. When we stopped troops passing through Azuara and crossing the bridge, they made a detour and crossed the river at a ford about one kilometre to our right.  By the middle of the  afternoon (about 2.30pm) I was informed by the (lieutenant-colonel) commanding Brigade 95 that he had been ordered to retire his troops across the river to the south of Azuara, and that he would take  up positions on the ridge behind the river. He also stated that three entire Brigades had retired from our right, thus leaving no troops between us and Belchite, and also that the left flank had retired over the river.  At about the same time engineers belonging to a unit which I am unable to name, attempted to blow the bridge which connected us with the rear positions. Three large explosions took place but, fortunately, the structure was not completely demolished, but enough room was left to cross it.  Only one  battalion commander of the 95th remained on the north of the river with us. In consultation with us, he stated that he was willing to stay so long as we did. However, his men were leaving and, although he shot four or five of them, he was unable to stop the retreat. At nightfall, only he and about half-a-dozen of his officers remained. They were placed on our right flank with one of our machine-guns. Our losses this day were ten killed and 29 wounded.  The only communications we had with outside was with our kitchen in Letux. This was contrived by the transmissions who cut in on the civil line at both ends. After nightfall we held a conference of officers where I reported on the situation. I informed the comrades that we had received no orders to retire and all that I knew of the situation.  In view of the fact that the battalion of the XIII Brigade which was promised as coming to our assistance had not shown up, and that the patrol we sent down the Letux road to guide them in did not report (they never did report, although we waited until about two am. They must have been taken prisoner), and also because the Brigade machine-gun company joined us, not only without machine-guns but also without rifles, I ordered that the battalion move back over the river and take up position with the 95th Brigade on the high cliff in the rear.  This decision was also based on the knowledge that the enemy had infiltrated across the river on our left flank, climbed the cliff and just as dusk fell was already firing into the rear of our position with machine-guns. We lost two men from this fire.  About 9.30pm comrade Joe Gibbons phoned our kitchen to say that he had encountered General Walter on the road and that I was to report to Divisional Headquarters to make a report.  In preparation for moving across the river we collected all the wounded comrades and placed them in a commanded truck and with a small guard of Brigade scouts and others we took the truck along the Letuz highway. We encountered no enemy. Neither di we meet our patrol.  Later at Divisional Headquarters, General Walter was not free to speak to me until nearly four am. At this time I received orders to move the battalion to a position at kilometre eight on the Belchite-Lecera road to act as a reserve unit.  I decided to move the battalion via Samper de Sals but, not knowing the exact route, we had to go, using the kitchen truck (the kitchen had by now been moved to Lecera) and explore the road.  It was just breaking dawn when I arrived at the battalion position on the heights behind Azuara. Already the enemy artillery was firing and our machine-guns were engaging the enemy who were entering the town.  When we searched for the 95th Brigade to inform them of our order to move out, we discovered that they had entirely disappeared during the night. The result was that one of our machine guns and its crew, aswell as about eight other comrades were cut off from the rest of the battalion by the enemy.  

On the  hill to the right in this photo, taken from Azuara bridge, a Finnish machine gun section was emplaced to cover the Mac Paps´retreat across the river under Kauko Nihtila with Hekki Jokinen (Company runner), Eskel Dahl (stretcher bearer), Otto Suomela & Sauli Hyppa (machine gunners), Sergeant Major Hjamar Sankari and Political Commissar Aarne Mytinnen  (Our Boys in Spain, p39.  K.E. Heikkinen, 1939). In addition Frank Whitfield, Arthur Rose, Leo Gordon and Percy (or Perry) Hilton were helping to defend this impossible position. Despite frantic efforts by Nilio Makela and Paul Wellman to warn them with shouts and pistol shots from the road, they were unable to escape. Rose was shot as he tried to give first aid to Leo Gordon and Whitfield was killed as he and Hilton tried to escape. After Hilton was captured his captors amused themselves standing the tall Hilton against a short Nationalist soldier. Their anger abated, Hilton was spared but he was told later by a Nationalist officer that the other survivors had been taken prisoner, lined up and shot, perhaps because the fair haired Finns were considered to be Russians.

Cecil Smith continues……  Leaving a small detail to try to contact them, I ordered the remainder of the battalion to leave for Lecera. Wounded were again evacuated in the truck we had brought. Our armoury truck sent out the night before carrying a number of trench mortars and machine guns left behind by the 24th Division never got through and must have fallen into the hands of the enemy.  Expecting that the fascists would open fire on us with shrapnel from the several batteries of 75s which they were using against us, I ordered the troops to move in open march of approach formation.  The fact that enemy aviation did not show up for several hours, and that enemy infantry must have mistaken us for their own troops, we were not fired on until we reached Samper.  Just before reaching Samper, about five kilometres from Azuara, we passed positions already occupied by  enemy troops, but continued without engaging them as our mission was to arrive at a certain point at the earliest possible moment. We arrived in Lecera about noon and reported to Brigade Headquarters for further orders, but it was evident that considerable changes had already taken place in our front since the night before.  About two pm. We received our first orders to the effect that the Division was moving down the Albalate road a few kilometres and that we should place the battalion across the left flank of the line of march, protecting the troops from an attack from the north.  Within fifteen minutes we received three different orders. The last of these was that we should march along the road about 500 metres north of the highway, take up a position near a village called Picon, or something of the sort, and at once contact Brigade on the main road.  Just as the battalion was about to move off, Divisional officers arrived with different orders again. Take up positions on the south side of the road and to the north, protecting both sides for a distance of about two kilometres from town. This we did.  Enemy forces then advanced on Lecera from the south. We engaged several of his tanks and fired on infantry which had occupied a rise to the south of the town. While we were actually engaged in this fight, about 150 metres south of the highway a captain from Division staff arrived with orders to take up position across a barranco running in a north easterly direction about three kilometres from where we were.  When I pointed out that we were already fighting off an enemy attack from the south, he insisted that the tanks were ours and that the infantry was the XIII Brigade. This latter information we knew to be wrong as the XIII were on high ground about a kilometre to our left flank. The staff captain would consider no variation of his orders, and produced a map which indicated that various units of the Divisions were in position in a circle around the town. These included battalions we had seen move off in the Albalate direction several hours previously.  Following orders, we withdrew our forces from their positions. Two companies and several machine-guns went up the barranco. One company remained in reserve and the other company stayed close to the highway for contingencies. As we were moving across, the fascists attacked the town from the south, undoubtedly assisted by the fact that they no longer faced the fire from our battalion.  Some time later I was approached by a Mexican captain who introduced himself as the commanding officer of three battalions of the XIII Brigade in the vicinity. The captain stated that he wished to counter-attack Lecera and wished us to act as his reserve.  I explained to the comrade what my mission was as given to me by Division, but agreed that I could protect his right flank and also use one company as a reserve for him. The counter-attack failed.  About 10.30 at night we learned from teniente James Ruskin of Brogade transmissions that the British battalion was still in position north of Lecera. At once we sent a patrol of about seven men to contact this battalion and inform them of the fall of Lecera, suggesting a route for their withdrawal.  Orders for our withdrawal to Albalate arrived about 11.00pm. Our patrol found that the British battalion had already left. We marched down the road some distance behind the XIII Brigade battalions, supplying rear and flank guards for the column.  (March 11th).  Our losses for the day were not very great. The heaviest loss was the machine gunners at Azuara who were either captured or killed. About eight or nine am. We arrived at our positions (1.5) kilometres north of Albalate, where the Brigade was supposed to reorganise. While we were eating lunch the machine-gun and mortar company of the XI Army Corps who were supposed to protect Albalate from the south, passed through our lined very rapidly, stating that the town had been captured by the fascists.  We had heard no shots fired, but I sent runners to the companies to prepare for orders.  Just at this time comrade Nikolai came through the camp and gave me verbal orders to take the battalion via Hijar to Alcañiz. We formed on the highway and commenced to march. The battalion staff marched with our Third Company, then under the command of Captain Brage.  A panic developed on the highway. Tanks, trucks, ambulances and our cavalry tore through the infantry. Drivers and occupants leaned out and shouted to the soldiers that the fascists were on their heels. The infantry was thrown into confusion and many of the units lost their cohesion. We lost contact with one of the companies of the battalion as other units crowded between us.  A mounted courier came up with orders to go first to Alcañiz and then to Caspe. Just outside of Hijar enemy cavalry units cut the rear of our column off, mounting machine guns on the highway. In order to lighten our machine gunners for the long march, the company commander had ordered them to place their guns on a truck which he thought belonged to the Brigade. I later learned from a comrade in the Rakosi battalion that the truck was theirs. Many of us were then forced to cross the river and make our way overland to Alcañiz. Owing to the fact that our forces were from now on split and in several places at the same time, it is impossible to state what the casualties were.  During the night of March 12th, part of our battalion patrolled Hijar keeping the fascists from getting across the river. Later we formed a line a (few) kilometres east of Hijar on a ridge (km 71). These positions we held all day not taking a great deal of part of the action of the day. During the late afternoon a patrol from Company three reported having seen enemy forces occupying the town of Samper de Calandas (sic).  At night we learned that we were to move again towards Alcañiz as a flanking attack was expected. However, the Brigades did not move off until early daylight. Again we supplied the rear guard. In the course of this march again the various units became mixed together. Not only did various battalions of on Brigade mix in, but the same was true of various Brigades. No orders were given as to where we were actually going. Just orders to march towards Alcañiz. Owing to the fact that my battalion was spilt into two, with the rearguard company to the back, I utilised the ambulance as a means to control the troops.  

Retreat from Hijar to Caspe March, 1938

 The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; ALBA Photo 011-0073. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York,NY10012,New York University Libraries

The same bridge today

 The enemy cut up from Andorra and cut the road just west of Alcañiz. From what I have heard since, Brigade staff was in a position to know this fairly early, but they failed to notify our battalion of the fact. As a result, one company was left off and marched away with another Brigade (the XII, I think) as this Brigade seemed to be moving in an orderly manner. As for our ambulance, the failure to notify the troops in the rear resulted in our driving right into enemy positions where they straddled the road  Several machine-guns and a tank gun opened fire on us from point-blank range, about 50 metres when they started up, but we saw them before they opened fire and had swung rapidly onto a cart road running to the left. This led behind a large fabrica and we were able to escape on foot. The ambulance had to be abandoned because a small lake completely surrounded us on three sides, the fourth being towards the enemy. We escaped on foot still under fire from the machine guns and tank cannon. A practicante (first-aid man) was killed, and I became separated from the doctor, Lieutenant Dagar. He went into Alcañiz that evening and found the place full of Moorish and Reqeite troops.  This was on March 14th. Those who were near the front of the Brigade column, many of them were later picked up by btuck and taken to Caspe. Those of us at the rear, however, made over the mountains for Maella. Next morning, on orders from the local commandancia which insisted that Caspe was taken and evacuating Maella, we moved back to Batea where we set up a camp. By next day, upward of 200 men of the Brigade were collected there. On the morning of March 15th, there passed through camp several ambulances making for the battle reported in the vicinity of Escuatron. Leaving Captain Brage in charge of the camp, I rode north on an ambulance.  In Caspe that part of the battalion there was occupying the cemetery hill to the left of the town. In an effort to counter-attack the enemy’s advance on to a hill overlooking point.  We held this point against enemy infantry and tanks until evening. At this time the hill was held by such forces as the XV Brigade had in Caspe, that is, besides about (1.5) companies of Mac-Pap, also smaller units from the Lincoln-Washington and British, each under their own commanders.  I do not recollect precisely at what time and in what terms the orders came for us all to retire. My memory is that it came from Major Merriman. We then, as dusk fell, took positions between town and the cemetery, about 500 metres from the crossroads occupied by Brigade headquarters.  These, and other positions in the vicinity, we held for several hours. Then, in the early morning, under orders from comrade Doran who then assumed command of the Brigade, we mounted a night attack against the cemetery (Reservoir Hill). The Lincoln-Washington were elsewhere. Only a bare handful of British were able to take part, and three companies of the XIV Brigade supposed to assist us, refused to move because “their captain-adjutant had gone back to town”, about a kilometre to the rear.  So, with the aid of fire from our tanks which was very effective, although it wounded several of our men, we took the (Reservoir) hill. It was fortified by the enemy while he held it. Three heavy machine-guns were taken, fifty or sixty rifles, more than thirty prisoners, ten mules and other supplies, including a range finder.  This attack was made with little more than one hundred men with two light machine guns and no hand grenades. It naturally took a long time, nearly three hours, to take the hill since the Rakosi battalion, which we were told would make a flanking movement, never showed up, and we made only a frontal attack.  Possibly because of the failure of other units to move as planned in the night attack, the enemy, during this time, was able to advance rapidly on both our flanks, taking positions on the right in the railroad station and church steeple, and other houses in that part of town. On our left, they placed machine-guns in the olive groves and had either a light tank or an armoured car on a cart road hidden partly by the olives.

“…taking positions on the right in the railroad station and church steeple”.

View of the church steeple and Caspe railway station facing west.

View from below Reservoir Hill to the left towards the “little red casa on the railroad track”


Side view of the “little red casa” from the railroad track

Far side of the “little red casa” with evidence of enemy fire.

Just as dawn broke, the British patrol reported that they had been driven out of a little red casa (house) on the railroad track which protected our long line of communication back to Caspe. I sent a runner back to Brigade, but, owing to the distance, it took a great deal of time for an answer to arrive.  When it did, it merely repeated the information I had previously sent in with respect to our situation. Meantime the companies of the XIV Brigade, which we had placed to guard the roads and flanks, were seen to be retiring, whether under orders or not I do not know. But, in half an hour, they had completely moved away. As the enemy fire from our rear was growing stronger, I sent a runner to Brigade asking for assistance in the destruction of these positions, either by gun fire or assault. Otherwise, with men tired and somewhat upset, I felt we could not hold our position.  Fortunately we had sent in our prisoners, captured guns and mules to town just before daybreak.  As the runner was so long in returning, we were not sure that he had gotten through the very heavy machine-gun and rifle fire covering the open field between us and town. Therefore, I ordered certain sections to cover the retreat of the remainder and informed the British of my decision, advising Captain Wild to leave with us, which he did. No officer had been named as in command of either the attack or holding of the hill, except Comrade Chapeyev and, as he never showed up, I assumed responsibility, seeing we were so far from the Brigade and the rest of our troops.  Crossing the railroad cut, the river, and open fields under machine-gun fire cost us a number of lives and resulted in considerable disorganisation of the units.  

The approach to the “railroad cut”

Don’t look down!

Just as we reached the lines of the XII Brigade, a full kilometre behind our previous positions, I met a runner returning with orders to hold the hill. By that time I had lost control of the men and was not able to regain it again as, of course, comrade Wild and I were amongst the last of those retiring.  This was the last actual action the battalion was in, although during the day and night of March 16th we held various positions on the road between Caspe and Maella and were strafed and bombed by enemy planes.  On March 17th, about four am., we received orders to move back to a point between Maella and Batea, where the Brigade was reorganised.  Without referring to reports previously made to the Brigade at that time, I cannot state the number of dead, wounded or missing. These were compiled at Batea and were not finished until I left for Valls (hospital) a few days later.  Our records were lost in the subsequent action.  But I recollect that, on March 20th, we had gathered together just over 250 from the old battalion, besides new recruits who came up. Also that we had turned in two machine-guns and a Dektyarov (Soviet machine gun) and 135 rifles.  From Canadian Volunteers in Spain 1936-1939 by William C. Beeching,University of Regina


(Dave Doran at his Command Post in Caspe).

The Battle for Caspe. 15th to17th March 1938

Hopefully the map above when expanded will give readers an idea of the places mentioned in Cecil Smith’s report that are in  Caspe.  What is clear is that Cecil Smith has mistaken Reservoir Hill for Cemetery Hill, as there is no way that he could have seen the enemy  taking positions on the right in the railroad station and church steeple from Cemetery Hill. We had a lot of fun in Caspe. Firstly, Reservoir Hill, where Nilo Makela was mortally wounded still has a reservoir on the top but more recent industrial buildings now spoil the view.

Reservoir Hill from the positions where the Brigaders attacked

The railroad station and the church steeple (actually a convent) still stand and to the east is the warehouse where Milton Wolff, Joe Bianca, Sam Grant, Bill Martinelli and Al Kaufman set up a machine gun and watered down the sacks of flour with wine (p246, Another Hill, Milton Wolff. University of Illinois Press).

Possible location of Milton Wolff’s machine gun position in the warehouse by Caspe station at the far left on the third floor

Bullet holes on the station building above.

Bullet holes on the facing side of Caspe station are still just visible. Sadly a modern building now stands between the station and the warehouse but in 1938 the view was clear. Of particular interest to the south of Reservoir Hill was the  little red casa (house) on the railroad track” (See photos above). The building still stands in a forlorn state and has windows on three sides. One can see why the British battalion patrol was pushed out of the building as there is only one aperture on the far side from which to observe and fire from! The far wall is also peppered with heavy machine gun bullets now rendered. The loss of this building exposed the flank of the Brigaders trying to hold Reservoir Hill and forced them to retire. The open space to the railway bridge over which they retreated across the river is frightening. With no cover but the only way out there must have been many men killed in this desperate escape.

View of Caspe from Dave Doran’s Command Post

Close up of the Caspe railroad bridge and below the stone road bridge at km 1, which was the regrouping point for the Brigade after they retreated, according to Bob Cooney.


Over the past few months I have been reading the diaries of  James Neugass entitled War is Beautiful edited by Peter Carroll & Peter Glazer. (New Press, New York, 2008). I cannot state how useful this book has been in locating some of the places that he describes. His account of the Hospital at Cuevas Labradas during the battle of Teruel is one such matter that we discovered there last November on a recent tour and our new work on Vila Paz Hospital will bear fruit later in July when we have been invited to visit the privately owned former hospital to identify shots from Cartier Bresson’s film Victoire de la Vie. However on this occasion we decided to locate the Divisional Hospital near Urrea de Gaen aswell as Kilometre 46. The location of the Hospital is exactly as Neugass describes it. A beautiful and peaceful place. A true “Paradise Valley”. Here is how Neugass describes the Hospital:

March 10th. Urrea de Gaen. Near Hijar. Hospital Camp.  After a short trip found Divisional Hospital-four camouflaged tents pitched in an olive grove a quarter of a mile off the road between two steep hills and a canal on whose bank canes grow fifteen feet high. There is a barranco for each of our cars. Nice place.  Big planes but small bombs. Scatter stuff, just to warm up the griddle. Big stuff and concentration come later. Tomorrow or next day my guess….  Afternoon. Our camp, complete to “Please Do Not Use Branches of Olive Trees For Camouflage- It Destroys The Tree” sign, over the signature of the camp commander, is a model of efficiency, beauty and repose. The surgical tent with its two waiting tables has now been wired to our generator. Beds in wards are sumptuously made up, the office tent echoes typewriters. The triaje tent has been laid out with scrubbed but still bloodstained stretchers. The ground has been swept in and outside of all four tents. The seventy five of us will take care of the wounded of eight to ten thousand. The dead take care of themselves.  All up the cliffs that rise on both sides of the narrow little valley grove, groups of staff sit at the mouths of their dugouts, reading, talking, sewing. The cook-shack among the reeds of the canal, better camouflaged than any of the tents, is busy and clean- but no tremendous amount of organisation or of cooking ability is necessary to produce the rice, beans and olive oil dishes, the bread and jam, coffee and wine on which we live and work.  The huge portable drinking water tank has been filled to the brim by our water truck. Nailed to the tress which shades the tank is our mailbox.  The first two wounded from the LincolnWashingtons have arrived from Belchite. On of them, a stretcher bearer, had the luckiest wound of the war. The stray which hit him which we picked out of his arm will some day make a good watch fob, if the stretcher bearer’s luck holds. A big evacuation amb(ulance) slowly comes off the road into our valley at belly case speed.  Later. The wounded come in, all night….  March 11th. Worked in the O.R. last night hauling stretchers and lifting patients on and off the table. Held one etherised guy on his side while edges of what looked like a tiger bite were being trimmed, probed, swabbed with iodine, peroxide and ether…..  Almost every operation is a laparotomy or exploration. The knife follows crisscross blotched trails marked by black metallic smudges. No sense sewing up a guy’s chest if there’s a hole in the liver. Since livers will hold no stitches, almost all the boys nicked in this organ die. They do not die fast enough to be buried in the hospital camp, but in the Rear, after we have spent much bandage and adhesive, drugs and gasoline on them….  Hijar and its fascist population are getting hell four, six, eight times a day.  Railhead hospital on the Pueblo de Hijar hilltop, in one of whose wards I spent my first night out of Villa Paz, was destroyed yesterday.  A hundred and five wounded were killed in their beds….  Later, Major Len Crome, a doctor on the Divisional staff, had commandeered Neugass’ ambulance and they searched near Lecera for the commander of the 35th Division, General Walter. And so to Kilometre 46 between Lecera and Albalate. Here is a photo of km 46 with oddly enough part of the original road still existent! No evidence of the emplacements for the gun batteries, however. But one can easily imagine the scene as described by Neugass: After half and hour of searching the empty roads and hillsides, we came upon General Walter’s long , black Chrysler limousine parked in a meadow next to six cavalrymen and a motorcycle. The General’s car was famous because it was the only vehicle at the Front which was not camouflaged. The nickel on its hood and the windows were as prettily polished as if Walter were going to be married that day, or drive down Fifth Avenue on an Easter Sunday.

General Walter examining a rifle, December 1937

The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; ALBA Photo 011-0855.Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY10012, New York University Libraries

 We found the General seated among his staff in a cleft in the dry hills. All seven officers were freshly shaven. The creases in their trousers were perfect, boots shined and khaki uniforms unspotted. Four sappers stood at one side with picks and shovels. Two of them carried officers’ boots and pistols. I imagine that the shoes were still warm from the bodies of the soldiers who had worn them. Dead, an officer represents a good pair of boots, a pistol, a wrist-watch and possibly a compass.  On top of a hill, at our side, stood a Captain, field glasses in hand, searching the horizon. Every few seconds the General would look up from the map on which he was silently drawing red crayon lines and ask the two field telephone men if their machines were in order.  No Republican troops were ahead of us. The General had stayed in order to be able to plan our next defensive positions.  There was a little shelling but otherwise the afternoon was absolutely quiet, except for the usual machine-gun chatter. I could not understand why we were not being bombed. It later occurred to me that we had escaped their planes because we were so far back of enemy lines that we had been mistaken for fascists.  “What do you see?” asked the Major of the Captain with the field glasses.  “Nothing.”  I was so nervous that I smoked my last cigarette.  “Cavalry!” the Captain on the hill announced.  “Near?” asked the General without looking up from his map.  The officers all carried parabellums. These are Luger pistols which can be mounted on their gunstock-shaped holsters. They fire on the machine-gun principle and there is no breech cover to slide back and ruin your aim. If you have telescopic sights parabellums are almost as good as  light automatic rifles, but ten of them are not enough to hold off Moorish cavalry.  The staff officers were busy mounting their guns, inspecting their sights and testing the actions of their locks. I pulled out my 7.65 and slid a shell into its barrel. My eyes, mind and every thought were all fixed on the grenade which I kept in the springs of my front-seat cushion. “More Moors,” announced the voice under the field glasses. “A thousand metres.”  I had been hearing the low roar of tank engines and could no longer contain myself.  “Captain, do you hear tanks?” I asked.  “Yes, I hear them. On our flanks.”  The General put his map aside, stood up and said “Kilometre 46. We will set up a line of resistance at Kilometre  46. Has anyone got an orange?”  Orders were transmitted through the field telephone and to the cavalry and motorcycle dispatch riders. The General and his staff idled down the hillside and loaded into the gleaming limousine and my own mud-smeared, scarred and scorched wagon. Air clicked into the vacuum left by the path of M-gun bullets, like the snapping of fingers. “Pluck-oo” sounds came over our shoulders….


Kilometre 46 facing east

When I arrived at Kilometre 46, the General had already arrived. He and his staff stood across the road, guns in hand.  A truckload of men came along. One of the officers stopped it. The chofer said that he had other orders. “Is that so?” the officer announced. “Well, everybody get out” waving his gun a little….  The Franco-Belge battery had arrived; three guns on one side of the road and three on the other. Ahead was the full weight of Franco’s war machine. I was busy helping the gunners dig…. Behind the emplacements of the roadside Franco-Belge batteries, the new pine boards of shell-boxes glistened in the late afternoon sun. Ordinance officers were searching the horizon with the waving, mantis-like uplifted arms of their range finders and two four-barreled anti-aircraft machine-guns had arrived to protect the gunners.  In open formation Polish companies of the Dombrowski Battalion were fanning out into the hills.  I saw General Walter get into his limousine and gave him a can of carne I had been saving.  Picked up Major Crome and we drove back towards camp. Passed families of peasants marching like queues of mourners behind carts loaded with all that was mortal of their destroyed homes….


Kelvin, Barbara & Dani near Urrea de Gaen after a lot of exploration!

 There is a great deal more to write up about. I have just finished a tour with two Australians and over the next couple of weeks I will add more news. So much to discover!


One thought on “The Great Retreats. March 10th to April 2nd 1938

  1. Thank you for your hard work and research you did. You see my grandfather died in this battle. His name was Vincent L. Deegan he was English we have only one picture of him in his uniform I don’t know to much about him or his side of family all communication was lost. He left a wife and 2 daughters my aunt who was 5 and my mother who was 2 at the time. I always thought this was the last of the romantic wars and he went for his cause. Like l said before thank you so much for your research and allowing me to see the areas that my grandfather saw.

    Scott Kirsch
    Charlotte, NC

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