The making of the the Washington Battalion

March 21, 2014
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Editor’s Note: This article is primarily constructed around a summary of three interviews that Sandor Voros conducted with Mirko Markovics in July 1937.  An additional interview was planned that would have extended into the Brunete offensive but was never conducted as Markovics was called away and the interview never resumed.

Colonel Stephen Fuqua, David Doran and Captain Hans Amlie at Fuentes de Ebro, Nov. 1937 (Tamiment Library, NYU, 15th IB Photo Collection, Photo # 11-1350)

Colonel Stephen Fuqua, David Doran and Captain Hans Amlie at Fuentes de Ebro, Nov. 1937 (Tamiment Library, NYU, 15th IB Photo Collection, Photo # 11-1350)

On April 24, 1937 Captain Mirko Markovics traveled to Madrigueras, site of one of the training bases of the International Brigades, to initiate the formation of a second American Battalion. (1) In Madrigueras Markovics found approximately 100 American volunteers. On first impression Markovics was an odd choice to take the command.

Born in 1907 in Montenegro, Markovics was an active member of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. He had been selected to attend school in the Soviet Union where he received a doctorate in Economics from the Communist University for National Minorities of the West (KUNMZ). He was commissioned into the Red Army as a Commissar with the rank of Lieutenant. In 1936, he was sent to the United States where he headed the CPUSA’s Serbian Section and the Yugoslav Coordinating Bureau.  Early in 1937, he volunteered for service in Spain and arrived there on April 20.

He found discipline among the volunteers lax. The prevailing attitude, he stated,  was “We’re volunteers. If we want to accept orders and discipline, it’s ok. But if we do not like an order, we don’t have to carry it out.  We have the right to decide what to obey and what to reject.” Markovics worked to instill greater discipline, advising the soldiers that they “must set an example and establish even better discipline than that of the loyalist army.” New volunteers, many of whom were Americans, arrived in Madrigueras from Albacete in batches of 25 to 30 a day.  The newcomers accepted rules and regulations without question.

On April 30, Markovics received the official order to form a second American battalion. The following day, the men were organized into companies. Two days later, the International Brigade Headquarters formally appointed Captain Markovics as battalion Commander. Dave Mates, an American volunteer, was appointed Political Commissar. Markovics was not impressed by Mates who was a political appointee without military experience. He thought that Mates “did not mix well with the men,” noting he often failed to “show up” for the morning formation, and when he did, Mates was often “late and half dressed.”

Hans Amlie commanded the first company; Bill Halliwell, a Canadian emigrant from Britain commanded the second, and Alec Miller (also Canadian) the third  (2).  Due to prior military service in the United States—five years in the Army, two in the Marines–Amlie had originally been recruited by the American Socialist Party to lead the Debs Column.

Training began in earnest around May 10, 1937.  Instructors and battalion officers conducted lectures and led practical exercises on topics such as scouting and marching.  A foreign volunteer, identified as Rabele, provided much of the instruction. Markovics noted that the “best elements” were selected for the newly formed machine-gun company. Walter Garland, an African American veteran of Jarama, was made the company commander, supported by Milo Damjanovich, a Yugoslavian volunteer, as the Commissar.

On May 17, the Americans moved to the nearby town of Tarazona in order to enhance discipline.  Markovics noted that in Madrigueras “drunkenness” was rife “especially among the French.”  Initially, the citizens of Tarazona were not pleased to have the Americans because Franco-Belgian troops, who had been quartered in the town during the previous two months, had given the citizens a poor impression of internationals due to heavy drinking. The Americans eventually won over the townspeople.

Eight days after arriving, the battalion conducted its first field maneuvers.  Despite some of the scouts becoming lost, the exercise was considered a success. General training continued with an emphasis on small arms, grenades, and machine-guns. The battalion also initiated some specialized training, including signals. At that point the battalion had approximately 400 men in training.

On June 4, International Brigade Headquarters designated the unit as the 19th Battalion of the XV International Brigade. The order specified a strength of 250 men.  The next day, the battalion met in the town’s square and adopted George Washington as its name. The men initially wanted to name the battalion after Tom Mooney, a labor organizer imprisoned in California. They accepted the CP’s guidance delivered by telegram from the U.S. Communist Party in New York advising that naming the unit after Mooney “was not politically expedient at that time.” During the meeting a rumor circulated that the battalion would be going to the front and the men were “very happy.”  Many considered themselves ready for action.

After two days without receiving an order to move, the men, though “very disappointed,” applied their attention to training.  The biggest drawback to training was a lack of weapons. The battalion possessed only a Maxim machine gun, nicknamed “Mother Bloor,” and two light machine guns “stolen” for training purposes.

A watershed moment occurred during the parade formation on the morning of June 9.  Captain Markovics addressed the men, saluted them and said “Salud Comrades!’”  He was pleasantly surprised to see the men return his salute and hear their deafening response of “Salud!”  Markowitz sensed that at that moment the men became “a regular army.”

The battalion’s leadership was solidified at this time and consisted of the following: Mirko Markovics Battalion Commander; Dave Mates Battalion Commissar; Hans Amlie Co. 1 Commander with Bernard Ames Co. Commissar; Edward Cecil-Smith Co. 2 Commander with Morris Wickman as Commissar; Hussera (Yardas) Co. 3 Commander with Harry Hynes as Commissar; Walter Garland MG Commander with Carl Geiser as Commissar. Kaye was listed as Intendant.

Battalion leaders planned a night maneuver on June 11 but plans were changed when the battalion received orders to move to the Jarama front.  The men were eager to move.  When the trucks arrived to move them to the front the men rapidly boarded along with their gear.  Because fewer trucks arrived than anticipated the soldiers crowded 30 men to a truck.

After a painful overnight journey, the George Washington Battalion arrived “tired and hungry” in the town of Taracon around 11am on June 12. The movement order called for a brief stop to feed the troops and refuel the trucks.  But the field kitchen truck broke down along the route and there was no back-up plan to feed the men.  It became clear that insufficient preparations had been made. The unit was compelled to coerce “at the point of a gun” the local officials into providing gasoline for the trucks to complete their trip. They finally arrived at their destination, the town of Tailmer near Perales, about 2pm.

Insufficient preparations for the battalion’s arrival were further evident in Tailmer.   The men found the town “overcrowded” with “empty stores” and no designated billets.  The battalion staff obtained a stable for headquarters, while the men camped in the surrounding field.  Markovics called up the division staff and “raised hell” for the poor work involved in the move. Division promised to send a kitchen. The truck arrived late that evening and the men were finally fed.

On June 16, the Washingtons were ordered to move into a second line position to replace the Dimitrov Battalion. The unit received arms from other battalions: “250 rifles, six heavy machine guns and two light machine guns.”  The Washingtons were transported to Morata. Morale was “high” and the 280-man unit spent that night and the following day cleaning their weapons.

During the next 13 days the unit spent time in the second line organizing and training.  Soldiers selected to be stretcher bearers, ammunition and food carriers, and cooks received specialized training. In the case of the cooks “three good men were selected from each company.” Many of these men balked at being selected. They stated that they considered the work “as some sort of punishment.”  Markovics reflected that after the unit went into battle there was no shortage of men requesting to transfer to the kitchen.

On the night of June 22, a major storm inundated the battalion’s bivouac. High winds blew down many tents. Tents that had been erected in gullies were washed away in the deluge. The following night, the Washington battalion was ordered to stand by to respond to a threatened Nationalist attack along the Jarama. The battalion spent two wet miserable nights before the weather improved allowing gear to dry and the camp to be re-established. Markovics noted that despite these setbacks the men’s spirits remained high.

The last additions to the battalion leadership arrived on June 29.  Captain Robert Trail, an English volunteer who had recently commanded the Anglo-American Company of the 20th International Battalion of the 86th Mixed Brigade on the Cordoba Front, was appointed battalion Adjutant.  Dr. Mark Strauss joined as the Battalion Surgeon.

On June 30, the unit was alerted for movement to the front and at midnight boarded trucks. They traveled 150 km (93 miles) through the night before arriving in the town of Torreldones.  From Torreldones the battalion was ordered to conduct a road marched to their assembly area near kilometer stone Number 5.

The men were told that they were to conduct a five-mile road march.  Each man carried full marching equipment consisting of: Rifle, 200 rounds of ammunition, canteen, blanket, one or two hand grenades, gasmask, musette, knapsack, mess kit, steel helmet, pick and shovel. The weight of the equipment was approximately 20-25 kilograms (44-55 pounds). The march distance turned out to be closer to 14 miles along roads jammed with men and transport moving to the front.  Despite resting 10 minutes each hour, the men arrived at their final destination completely “exhausted.”  Arriving at the 5 kilometer stone around 4am, the men “flopped down and went to sleep.”

The battalion spent the next two days, July 3 and 4 awaiting further orders.  While they rested, the remainder of the XV Brigade moved to the front. The Washington Battalion was incorporated into the Brigade’s 1st Regiment. At 9pm on July 4 the battalion moved to the river Aulencia between Valdemarillo and Escoliar.  They reached the river at two in the morning of July 5. This was the battalion’s final jumping-off position. Later in the day the initial orders for the Brunete offensive were received.  Zero hour was midnight.

NOTES

(1) Adelphi’s Archive, Sandor Voros Collection.

(2) For more information on the Canadian volunteers, see Michael Petrou, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War (UBC Press, 2008).

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3 Responses to “ The making of the the Washington Battalion ”

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