Blast from the Past: Memoir
Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris.Over the next three months, Blast from the Past postings will showcase articles about the American volunteers who served in the Artillery. Many of these articles ran in The Volunteer during Ben Iceland’s tenure as editor. Iceland, who served in the Artillery, recruited several of his fellow artillerymen to document their experiences. Iceland also shared his own experiences in a series of articles he originally wrote in the early 1940s. Together these articles shine a light on some lesser known American volunteers.
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 4, Number 2, 1982.]
We spent the whole winter in those positions,1 never once being sent to the rear, and never seeing a woman’s face or being able to relax in a hot bath or a comfortable bed. But we amused ourselves in many ways, and I for one, enjoyed the life quite well. At night, in the cabin, we would huddle together beside the fire, and the bull would fly and tall tales would heat the air above us. Now and then we would be able to get an extra barrel of wine, and we would sing revolutionary songs, and other songs of a more jovial character – all through the night.
I well remember one occasion – I forget just now whether it was Christmas or some other holiday – when we received a most unusual visitor. He was a Captain in the Spanish infantry who had come down from the lines to pay the Americanos a visit. He was a picturesque fellow mounted on a splendid white horse which he rode at the head of a column of ragged infantrymen, organized into a washboard band. They tailed after him playing on their makeshift instruments, and doing a pretty good job of it. The captain himself rode in the grand manner-proud carriage, chest inflated, and a rakish smile on his lips. His clothes were, if anything, more ragged than those of his followers, and his face was unshaven.
He dismounted in front of our shack, made a gesture, and four of his men who had brought up the rear of this unusual cavalcade came forward, carrying on their shoulders a large keg of wine. Without saying a word to us, he pushed open the door, and the men entered and deposited the wind on the table. When we had all gathered round, attracted by this curious event, he made a little speech in which he expressed, in the name of the infantry, his appreciation of what we were doing for his country. He tapped the barrel and drank a toast to us. After that we settled down to the typical Spanish custom of repeated speeches and toasts, drinking and singing of songs.
That night was really a corker. Maybe the wine was stronger than usual, or maybe we just blew off the cork, but anyhow every man-jack of us got polluted. Timpson – the commanding officer – was set up at the observation post, and Jack Waters, who was the lieutenant in command of the gun positions [and the unit’s commissar], was there in charge. Jack was always one of the boys, and understood the need of letting off steam once in awhile. He got lit up too. It had snowed again during the night, and about three o’clock in the morning, Jack looked at the snow, and suddenly got the bright idea that it was time the battery had a midnight drill. After blowing his whistle, he bawled out: “Action stations on the double quick!” All of us piled out into the snow exactly as we were. None of us stopped for coats or hats. In fact, damn few of us even had pants on. I for one, was out there in my underwear, completely barefoot. Jack, in order to maintain his dignity, had on his pants, but little else. Around his bare chest was strapped the Mauser pistol. We lined up in front of him, and there in the snow we began to execute close order drill, marching up and down the fields, singing revolutionary songs lustily.
When you’re drunk, it is said, one can get away with murder, and so it was with us. None of us showed any ill effects from that night. In fact, it lifted our spirits for a time. The Spaniards went away next morning, thinking that the stories and pictures about American gangsters and clowns were actually understatements compared to the way we Americans had acted.
1. The John Brown Battery was stationed on the Toledo front and remained there without much action. For Carsman’s elaboration on the events that followed this evening see the previously published piece “Burro’s Burden.”