Blast from the Past: The First Day
Our First Day
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 11, No. 1, 1989.]
After three long marches, one by day and two by night, the George Washington Battalion had reached the tree-covered hill from which it would launch its attack. It was the morning of July 6, 1937, and the men waited impatiently for the start of the offensive which was giving them the chance to engage in their first military action. They should have been exhausted, but they were so keyed-up that they had forgotten how tired and sleepy they really were. I looked at the faces around me and thought about the fact that just a few months ago their owners and I had been complete strangers. I had met some of them on a hike through the snow and ice of the Pyrenees, and found the others in the training camps of Madrigueras and Tarazona .
I knew that they had come to this foreign country, thousands of miles from their homes, because they wanted to do whatever they could do to save the people of Spain from the misery, the oppression, and the enslavement that a fascist victory would impose on them. I admired them all for their courage and commitment, but I had learned, as I got to know them better, that I could admire and yet dislike the same person. There were many with whom I felt friendly and comfortable, and there were others whose attitudes, behavior and general personality I found obnoxious and repulsive.
It was amazing that so few of us had ever worn a uniform or fired a gun before we came to Spain and yet, in the short time since our arrival, we had become a closely-knit and well-disciplined military organization. There were three English-speaking battalions in the 15th International Brigade. The Lincolns, the British and us. The three battalions would be fighting side by side as one regiment, in the coming battle. We knew what the Lincolns had done at Jarama and we wanted to be as good soldiers as they had proven themselves to be. The British Battalion contained a large number of well-seasoned veterans who had already seen plenty of action. We were the newcomers, green and untested, and we had our work cut out for us if we were going to carry our share of the load with the veterans in the other two battalions.
We had already been told that our first taste of action was going to be more than some minor skirmish. The Brunete offensive, in which we were to receive our initiation as a fighting unit, had been planned to relieve the enemy pressure on the almost-encircled city of Madrid by attacking, taking and holding, over an area of many square miles, as much territory as possible. The task assigned to us, together with the Lincolns and the British, was the capture of the town of Villanueva de la Canada, which lay directly in front of us and close enough so that we could see clearly the small houses and the large church, surmounted by a tall tower, which was to be the source of so much of our grief later that day. We and the British, with the Lincolns in reserve, would lead the assault as soon as our artillery and planes worked over the town and softened its defenses so that we could advance with a minimum of losses.
As we waited in the cool shade of the trees which sheltered us, we could see the blinding glare of the blazing sun that was throwing its searing heat on the area between us and the town. Except for a large field of growing wheat that was close to the bottom of our hill, the fields near the town seemed flat and barren as if whatever crops they had produced had recently been harvested.
Suddenly the quiet of what had been a peaceful morning was broken by the thunder of bursting artillery shells and aerial bombs that were falling not only on the target but on every town and village that lay within our view. Almost immediately we were given the order to move out. Our decent from our position presented no problem. Pinned down by the falling shells and bombs, the enemy troops in the town had evidently taken cover and there was no fire coming our way as we walked toward the wheat field through which we had to pass. I had reached the field and was about to enter when I noticed that the shelling and bombing had stopped. The planes and big guns had evidently finished their work here and were looking for other targets.
I was pushing my way through the stalks of wheat when I heard what I thought was a swarm of bees buzzing directly over my head. Somewhere near me I heard a loud scream and then a voice shouting “Get down.” I realized that it had been bullets and not bees that had been buzzing so close to me, and I lowered myself quickly, but it seemed as if the enemy fire was following me right to the ground. I had never been so frightened, and I panicked. I was sure that each bullet was being aimed directly at me and that I was doomed to be hit and die on the very spot on which I was lying. I had never been so close to death, and I was paralyzed with fear. Never before had I found myself in a situation where someone was shooting at me and trying to kill me, and I was not prepared to face this new and terrifying experience. I was shaking and bathed in sweat from the effort of trying to regain control of myself. I was trying desperately to understand why I was panicking so badly.
It was true that being so close to death was a new experience for me, but what had I expected? Back home when I had said good-bye to my wife, my family, and my friends, I had been ready to accept any dangers that I would face as a soldier in Spain. That was then, and thinking like that had been easy. But this was the here and now, the real world and the real war, and being shot at was one of the dangers that had finally caught up with me and which I would have to face, like it or not. What about those principles that were so much a part of my life: my love of freedom, my hatred of the exploiters and the oppressors, my hopes for a better world? Did I really believe in them or were they just lies and meaningless? No, I had meant every word and every thought, and nothing would ever change that.
What about the other men scattered around me in this field? I had liked and admired so many of them because I was sure that they felt as deeply as I did about the things in which I believed. They were my comrades, my friends. I could not let them down and I could not let myself down. What was the saying, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies but once.” I was no hero but I knew that I would never be able to live with myself if I did not do the job, no matter what it cost, that I had come so far and given up so much to do.
I had been filled with fear and shame, and I had not been able to think straight. My thoughts were still jumbled, but now at least they were logical. I had asked myself a lot of questions and the answers that I had found had helped me make a decision which I knew was correct and would give me the peace of mind that I needed to face the future and whatever it presented. I had come here to be a soldier, and my conscience and sense of responsibility gave me no other alternative but to give it my best shot. If that meant being hurt or being killed, so be it!
When the enemy fire eased up, and the shouted order this time was “Let’s go,” I was prepared. I stood up and began to move forward with the other men. I notice that there were gaps around me, and I remembered the scream that I had heard earlier, but my fear had left me and I was at peace with myself. I had fought my own private war against the terror which had devastated me and almost cost me my mind, and nothing I would face from here on in could be worse than that. I was now what I wanted to be – a soldier, ready to do whatever was asked of me, and I was content and almost happy as I walked out of the field and toward the enemy.
We had advanced only a few hundred yards when the enemy fire began to intensify. We were being shot at not only from what appeared to be trenches in front of the town but also from the high windows of the church tower. We were completely exposed and the combination of rifle and machine-gun fire was creating a curtain through which it had become increasingly costly to penetrate. The fire was so heavy and so many of our men were being hit that we were forced to stop our advance and look for cover. The trouble was that the field where we had stopped was flat and the ground so hard that the only protection we could find or provide for ourselves were some stones and loose dirt that we were able to scrape together and place in front of our heads. Things could not have been much worse. We could not advance, we could not retreat, we had the poorest cover, we were hot and thirsty, and the firing never seemed to stop.
Through the long hours of the afternoon we lay there, held down so effectively that we could not do anything to help ourselves. Every once in a while I could hear a gasp or groan and I knew that another bullet had found its mark. Even though very little of the fear which I had suffered earlier still remained, I could not help wondering whether I would be the next one hit. I realized that this was dangerous thinking, and that I had to stop it.
I was new at this game but I learned enough to understand what it took to keep soldiering day after day without going crazy. I would have to acknowledge and agree that I had absolutely no say over what might happen to me. Fate, and only fate, would decide my future, and since I had no control over the decision, the only course that was left to me was to do the best that I could for as long as I could, and let the future take care of itself.
It seemed to take forever, but at last the afternoon was ending, the sun was setting and the evening shadows started to appear. As night came on the firing from the town seemed to lessen, and I was able to get up from the spot where I had lain motionless for so many hours and, light-headed and staggering began to relax from the tension of the long afternoon. Now it would be possible to get some food and water, and some rest, but first I had to see how my comrades had made out. I knew that there had been numerous casualties. I just did not know how many and who they were. As I walked around and looked and asked, I received shock after shock. So many wounded, so many dead! So many good men, so many good friends, so many that I would never see again. I began to cry, and walked off by myself because I could [not] stop the tears.
I had thought that the fighting was over for the day and would not be resumed until the next morning, but I was wrong. Somebody changed the signals and orders had come down that the town had to be taken that night. So, instead of the food and rest that we had expected, we found ourselves back in action. The Washington, the English, and the Lincolns together with what must have been the rest of the 15th Brigade, fought their way into the town and wiped out what remained of its defenses and defenders. Villanueva de la Canada was ours at last, but at what a cost!
That night, as I was falling asleep, I was thinking of my Battalion, and of how much it had seen and done and learned and gone through in just one day, and I thought of myself, a trainee yesterday, a soldier today, and what I had done and how I changed in the same short period. The men in the George Washington Battalion, including me, may have been rookies but we were all veterans that night!
 International Brigade Archive, Moscow: Select Images, Folder 191: Commanders of the 15th International Brigade, 1937-38, Box 2, Folder 17; ALBA Photo 177; ALBA Photo number 177-191043. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.