Jarama Series: Suicide Hill and the First Attack
In the Jarama Series, The Volunteer Blog will present a series of articles examining the experiences of volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion from its formation to the Brunete Offensive in July 1937. Articles will focus both on the battalion’s formation as well as on the individuals who served. These articles are intended to provide the reader with a better appreciation of the men and women who made up the first American combat formation in Spain.
Jarama Series: Suicide Hill
The Lincoln Battalion arrived at the Jarama Front early in the evening on February 16, 1937 and were led to a reserve position on a hill just behind the lines. The staff officer who acted as a guide advised the leadership that they would be under fire in the morning.[i] Though away from the front line they were within range of Nationalist weapons. The men dug in with their bayonets and helmets because they lacked entrenching tools. The physical labor helped keep the men warm and by the morning they had scooped out shallow trenches.[ii]
The following morning at 7am the Nationalists took note of the Lincolns and began a sporadic bombardment of the position.[iii] One volunteer piped up as the shells landed, “What the hell are they trying to do — kill us?” The joke fell flat.[iv] The men huddled in their slit trenches as the shells landed. Designated observers maintained watch and one, Charles Hamilton Edwards, was shot in the head. Edwards from Cincinnati, Ohio served seven years in the US Army and later worked as a seaman and yacht designer. Just before he was shot he told another volunteer, “You got to keep your head down. There’s a sniper shooting at us here.” [v] Within the hour the battalion suffered a second fatality. Misak Chelebian, an Armenian American furniture maker, died when he was hit by shrapnel.[vi]
The Lincoln battalion received picks and shovels and continued to improve their trenches over the next five days. Additional volunteers were wounded but no additional fatalities occurred despite the addition of aerial bombardments on the position the Lincoln’s named “Suicide Hill.”[vii]
The Moonlight Walk
Captain James Harris returned on February 20th.[viii] He informed the leadership that he was in charge and would lead the unit on military exercise. Captain Merriman was away at Brigade Headquarters. The Battalion formed up and moved off at 10pm. Harris led the unit behind the Republican front lines and then into no-man’s land. Between the lines Harris began exhibiting odd behavior. When asked by several staff officer where they were going he replied, “Follow the North Star.” Commissar Stember who accompanied Harris assumed command.[ix] Merriman rushed back to the Battalion and Harris was escorted to the rear.[x] The Lincolns returned to their position on Suicide Hill. Miraculously the unit suffered only one casualty despite having wandered between the lines for nearly an hour.[xi]
On February 21 the Lincolns shifted from their reserve position to a supporting second line trench. While the Battalion moved, part of a section from the Machine Gun Company under the command William Herrick was detached and assigned to support the 6th of February Battalion. Later that afternoon the 6th of February Battalion came under attack by a Moorish unit and with the assistance of the Lincoln machine gunners beat back the assault. After the assault the detachment rejoined the Battalion. [xii]
The following day the battalion moved into front line trenches in preparation for the unit’s first attack.[xiii] William Herrick’s section received orders to deploy his gun on the left flank to support the attack. While emplacing the gun Herrick was hit in his neck ending his frontline service. He was the first of many casualties that day.[xiv]
The First Attack
Promptly at 3pm on February 23 the Lincoln Battalion went over the top in its first attack. Two Russian T-26 tanks advanced in support of the attack. Company One left the trenches first. Company Two spread out to cover Company One’s section of the trench and followed Company One into no-man’s-land ten minutes later. The Machine Gun Company provided fire support until one-by-one each of the guns jammed.[xv]
A well placed Nationalist anti-tank gun hit one of the T-26 tanks and it burst into flames. The second tank beat a hasty retreat.[xvi] The flames of the first tank illuminated the men near the burning vehicle and silhouetted the men who advanced in front of it.[xvii]
Heavy fire from the Nationalist trenches caused the unsupported advance to stall. Casualties began to mount. Losses among the Cuban, Centuria Antonio Guiteras, Section were especially high. Rodolfo de Armas the Section Leader, was killed along with four other Cubans.[xviii] At least four other men from the company were wounded.[xix] John Scott, the Company Commander, was shot. Three additional volunteers were wounded and one killed during the attempt to bring him to an aid station. Scott died later that night.[xx] Bill Henry from the Irish Section, James Connolly Column, took over command of the company.
Bill Henry spread his men out a couple of hundred yards from the enemy trenches and ordered them to dig in. Details from the MG Company brought picks and shovels forward.[xxi] Dutch stretcher bearers worked their way out into no-man’s-land and carried the wounded back. Sixty casualties were reported in the assault though this number is likely inflated.[xxii]
Brigade sent down word at 10pm to pull the men back to their start points. The men quietly stood up and ran back to their trenches.[xxiii] Many of the men were bitter over the losses that they regarded as pointless. Merriman blamed the attack’s failure on a lack of flank support.[xxiv] The attack was a foretaste of events to come.
Partial Listing of Men Killed or Wounded Through February 23
Killed in Action in the First Days (3)
Chelebian, Misak. February 17
Edwards, Charles Hamilton, February 17
Aviezer, Elias Canadian February 22 (also listed as February 27)
Killed in Action in the First Attack (10)
Cárdenas, Jorge de Alberto de. Cuban, February 23
de Armas Soto, Rodolfo Ricardo Ramón. Cuban, February 23
Greenleaf, Robert Webster. February 23
Henry, William. Irish, February 23 (also listed as February 27)
Hernández Iglesias Lucas, Pedro Lucas Cuban February 23 (also listed as February 27)
Ladman, Louis. February 23
Maldonado Pérez, Miguel. Cuban, February 23
Rodríguez Betancourt, Antonio. Cuban, February 23
Scott, John. February 23
Van der Brugge, Adrian. Canadian, February 23
Casualties in the First Days (7)
Daduck, Stephen. Evacuated for mental issues
Harris, James. Evacuated for mental issues
Herrick, William. WIA February 23
Waters, Michael, Irish, WIA February 15
Dames, James. Canadian, WIA February 17
Doyle, John. Irish, WIA February 17
Donovan, Michael. Irish, WIA February 19
Soler y Tarafa, Óscar. Cuban, WIA February 20
Casualties in the First Attack (6)
Curtin, Edward. Irish, WIA February 23
Frait, William. WIA February 23
Haines, Joseph F. Irish, WIA February 23
Kornblatt, Samuel, WIA February 23
Litvinas, Anthony. WIA February 23
McLarnon, Aland Frederick. Irish, WIA February 23
Morrison, William A. Canadian of Irish descent, WIA February 23
Author’s Note: The sources on the early days at Jarama are often contradictory with different dates assigned to the same events.
Carroll, Peter N. The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Eby, Cecil, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, University of Pennsylvania: University Park, Pennsylvania:, 2007.
Geiser, Carl, Prisoners of the Good Fight, Americans Against Franco Fascism, Lawrence Hill and Company, Westport, Connecticut, 1986.
Herrick, William. Jumping the Line, The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical, Oakland, California: AK Press, 1998.
Landis, Arthur. The Lincoln Brigade, New York: Citadel, 1968.
Rolfe, Edwin. The Lincoln Battalion, New York: Stratford Press, 1939.
Tisa, John. Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985.
Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) ((Российский государственный архив социально-политической истории (РГАСПИ)); Records of the International Brigades (Comintern Archives, Fond 545)
Lincoln Rosters, undated, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 47, ll. 1, International Brigade – 17 Battalion – Lincoln Men Arrived February 5, 1937; ll. 3-4, Roster of the Lincoln Brigade, undated; ll. 5-6, International Brigade (Lincoln), undated; and ll. 7, 18/2 1937.
Missing Probably Dead (Complete to September 10, 1937), RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 51, ll. 11.
[i] The Staff officer was the Austrian Trauslitz. Arthur Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, (New York: Citadel, 1968), 44-45; Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, (New York, Stratford Press, 1939), 33.
[ii] Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 45; John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; (Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985) 38-39; William Herrick, Jumping the Line, The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical, (Oakland, California: AK Press, 1998), 157-58.
[iii] The actual time the bombardment began is unclear. Landis states 7am. Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 45; and Tisa states 6am. Tisa, The Lincoln Battalion, 39.
[iv] Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 2007), 53-54.
[v] Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, 36-37; Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, 39; Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 45.
[vii] Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, 34.
[viii] Landis and Herrick both maintain that Harris was still in command at this point and he was not relieved until after the Moonlight March. The date is not clear in any record but the event most likely occurred on February 20. Herrick, Jumping the Line, 163-164; Landis, The Lincoln Battalion, 46-47; Rolfe does not mention the incident.
[ix] Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 47; Peter N. Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994), 99.
[x] Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 99.
[xi] Herrick, Jumping the Line, 163-164.
[xii] Herrick, Jumping the Line, 167-170.
[xiii] Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, 41; Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 65.
[xiv] Herrick, Jumping the Line, 171-172.
[xv] Eby, Comrades and Commissars, 60.
[xvi] Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 64-69; Rolfe, 40-43; Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, 41-45.
[xvii] Eby Comrades and Commissars, 61.
[xviii] Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, 42.
[xix] Compiled by the author. Assessing casualties in the first attack is complicated by a lack of records and a tendency to list men killed at Jarama as having been killed on February 27th.
[xx] Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, 44 Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, 43-49.
[xxi] Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 66.
[xxii] Landis states 20 killed and 40 wounded, Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 69; and Carroll states 20 killed, nearly 60 wounded; Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 100.
[xxiii] The darkness covered this amateur movement which could easily have resulted in heavy casualties; Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 69; Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, 49-50.
[xxiv] Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 100.